Bethesda native Katie Ledecky won five gold medals and took silver in her other event at the world championships, but her performance in Budapest proved she’s human.
“If that was my bad year for the next four years, then the next couple years are going to be pretty exciting,” Ledecky declared.
Ledecky failed to set a personal best in any of her races -- the ultimate goal for every swimmer, even more than the medals. A runner-up finish in the 200-meter freestyle was the 20-year-old's first individual defeat in a major international race.
“I always wish there was more,” Ledecky said. “I've never walked away from a season completely satisfied, even last year (after winning four golds at the Rio Olympics). You always are looking and moving forward.”
She was certainly due for a letdown.
Ever since a stunning breakthrough at the 2012 London Olympics, when she won the 800 free as a little-known 15-year-old, Ledecky's trajectory has been nothing but up, up, up.
In 2013, she won four golds at the worlds in Barcelona, setting a pair of world records. Two years later in Kazan, she swept every freestyle from 200 to 1,500 meters, setting two more world records. And, yes, two more world records fell last summer in Brazil, transforming her into a full-fledged star.
But that wasn't the only striking change in Ledecky's life.
After putting off college for a year to focus on the Olympics, she moved across the country for her freshman year at Stanford. It has been an enriching experience that she's fully embraced, meeting new people and taking all sorts of challenging classes, but perhaps it had an impact on her swimming.
Ledecky acknowledged that she “didn't really set as high of goals or have that same motivation, just always being on and on and on.”
“Going through a lot of transitions and changes this year, knowing that I've gone through that now, I can really take what I've learned and use it moving forward,” Ledecky said.
She was certainly overshadowed along the banks of the Danube.
Caeleb Dressel emerged as America's newest sensation with a record-tying seven gold medals -- three of them on the same night, the first swimmer ever to accomplish that feat at worlds.
“He's incredible,” Ledecky said, maybe even a bit relieved to have the spotlight shining elsewhere. “Just so impressive how he goes race to race to medal ceremony to medal ceremony, has another race in about two minutes. He's just such a great athlete and such a great swimmer. So young, too, that he has so many great years ahead of him.”
Dressel is the same age as Ledecky.
Chances are, they both have plenty of great years ahead of them.
But now, for perhaps the first time in her swimming career, Ledecky is facing a bit of a setback.
It will be interesting to see how she bounces back.
In all likelihood, she'll come back better than ever.
“This year I didn't really set very specific time goals or goals in general,” she said. “I just kind of wanted to repeat in all by different events from the past two worlds and just play a part on some good Team USA relays. I didn't really have too big of expectations for myself, especially compared to the last couple of years. I knew there were expectations externally, but I was really just trying to focus on my own races, putting those together, and using this year as a big learning year.”
Ledecky took on her most demanding program at these championships, competing in four individual events and two relays, a total of 6,300 meters in all counting preliminaries, semifinals and finals.
“It was pretty tiring,” she conceded. “I'm pretty wiped out right now. But I'm happy with how it all went. I was happy with how I was able to bounce back after each race, move forward to the next race and get through to the next round as well as I did.”
She's not totally pleased with the results, even though she's now the winningest female swimmer in world championship history with 14 gold medals -- more than anyone except Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
Ledecky feels like she's capable of more.
“I'm happy with five golds and a silver,” she said. ``But there's a lot of room for improvement for me, as crazy as that sounds. Moving forward, I'm going to be really motivated. I'm really looking forward to working toward 2020 now.”