INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Katie Ledecky will concede that a few things have changed over her long career at the top of swimming.
Like those nagging aches and pains.
She laughs when remembering her days as a teenager, back when she was just beginning to make her mark on the international swimming scene and it felt like her body was unbreakable.
When one of her older teammates was griping “about a knot in his back,” Ledecky looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“What’s a knot?” Ledecky asked at the time.
“All these years later, I kind of know what that means,” she said, smiling.
Not that anyone else can tell.
At 26, Ledecky already has sealed her legacy as one of the greatest freestyle swimmers the sport has ever witnessed, yet she shows no signs of slowing down.
In fact, she seems to be getting better.
Ledecky started off the U.S. national championships with a dazzling performance in the 800-meter freestyle on Tuesday night, turning in her fastest time since setting the world record at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
As she powered to the finish, the rest of the field had just made the final flips at the other end of the pool.
Watching a monitor just off the deck at the IU Natatorium, retired Olympic star Cullen Jones marveled at Ledecky’s dominance.
After all these years, Ledecky still has the ability to amaze even the most seasoned observers of the sport, which might be her greatest accomplishment of all.
“No one else is even in the picture!” Jones exclaimed.
For young swimmers on their way up, the chance to compete alongside Ledecky is exhilarating — even when she leaves them in her wake.
Seventeen-year-old Jillian Cox doesn’t even remember Ledecky’s breakthrough performance at the 2012 London Olympics.
But the youngster was giddy after finishing second to Ledecky in the 800 free — albeit more than 13 seconds behind.
“I’ve looked up to her for so long,” Cox said. “She’s out there swimming her own race, and so am I. I try not to focus on how much she’s beating me by.”
Ledecky is more vulnerable in the shorter freestyle races, which showed in the 200 final Wednesday night.
She was out-touched by 16-year-old Claire Weinstein, who took the national title by two-hundredths of a second, though a runner-up showing was still good enough for Ledecky to earn a spot in her second event for the world championships next month in Fukuoka, Japan.
Ledecky’s career has been amazingly consistent, but she seems rejuvenated by her move to Florida after the Tokyo Olympics to work with a star-studded training group led by coach Anthony Nesty.
Practicing every day with gold medalists such as Caeleb Dressel and Bobby Finke, Ledecky was urged by Nesty to become more personally invested in all aspects of her routine.
“I wanted her to speak more,” Nesty said. “Not only to the other athletes, but being vocal in practice, being vocal about where she is and how she can improve in certain areas. I got the sense that she always kind of let her coaches coach and didn’t say much. But at her age, she has to give us information, because the information will help us make a good plan for her.”
Ledecky set a pair of short-course world records in 2022, which helped her earn The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award for the second time. Her time Tuesday night in the 800 free was the third-fastest of her career — and gave her the 30 quickest times ever in that grueling event.
“She kind of came out her shell a little bit, which is great to see,” Nesty said.
Still, it’s been a bit of an adjustment.
Just last week, Nesty texted Ledecky a couple of possible training plans for the day, wanting her to decide which one she preferred.
“I thought I was doing both,” Ledecky said with a grin. “He was like, ‘Oh, Katie, pick one.’ So I had to pick one. We’re partners in this process. He emphasizes that. I’m enjoying all of it.”
While there’s plenty of good-natured trash talk in Nesty’s group, Ledecky is essentially immune to the ribbing. Her accomplishments are so staggering, there’s no fodder for her teammates to seize upon.
“You can’t trash-talk Katie,” Finke said with a shrug. “I mean, what are you gonna say to her?”
Ledecky will head to worlds looking to add to her record medal haul from those championships, which already totals 19 gold medals and three silvers.
If, as expected, Ledecky wins the 800 free again, she’ll become the first swimmer ever to win the same race at six straight worlds. Oh, and for good measure, she’ll join Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Natalie Coughlin, Elizabeth Beisel and Nathan Adrian as the only U.S. swimmers to compete at a half-dozen championships.
Of course, all eyes are on next summer, when Ledecky will look to compete in her fourth Olympics, most likely with another full schedule that includes four individual freestyle races — ranging from 200 to 1,500 meters — and at least one relay.
The 400 free figures to be one of the most anticipated events of the entire Paris Games: Ledecky, the 2016 gold medalist, matched against reigning Olympic champion Ariarne Titmus — Australia’s “Terminator” — and rising star Summer McIntosh of Canada, who broke Titmus’ world record in March.
Ledecky isn’t looking that far ahead.
Not yet anyway.
“You just take it one year at a time,” she said. “You know the Olympic year is next year, but you have goals this year that you’re focused on first.”
One of the benefits of a long career is being able to inspire others to follow in your path. Ledecky knows what it was like for her, attending her first national championships at age 6 and getting Phelps’ autograph.
“I saw him walking to the car with his earbuds in,” Ledecky recalled, before catching herself. “Probably not earbuds. It was a cord, a long cord, attached to a CD player, something like that.”
Now, she’s the one the kids look up to.
“It’s incredible,” Cox said. “I love watching her — even if I’m 20 seconds behind her.”
Paul Newberry is a national sports writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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