Katie Ledecky, remarkably consistent, locks her spot on fourth Olympic team

INDIANAPOLIS — The surest of sure things in sports has delivered once again. Twelve years after she qualified for her first Olympics, 27-year-old Katie Ledecky has done it again.

The kid who swam in the neighborhood pool because she loved to splash around, not because she had aspirations to go to the Olympics, on Saturday night became only the ninth American swimmer to qualify for four Olympic Games.

“It’s special,” Ledecky said after easily winning the women’s 400 freestyle in a time that was faster than her 400 times at both the 2016 and 2021 Olympic trials. “I remember three years ago just trying to process being a three-time Olympian and now being a four. I just tried to enjoy each moment tonight.”

Ledecky, a seven-time Olympic gold medalist who is considered the greatest female swimmer in history, did what she always does in her races: she took the lead and never relinquished it. Her time of 3 minutes 58.35 seconds was nearly four seconds ahead of her closest pursuer, Paige Madden, meaning the race was over well before it officially was.

More swimming news: Gretchen Walsh, a senior at Virginia, sets world record

At the U.S. Olympic trials in 2021, Ledecky swam the 400 free in 4:01.27. In 2016, it was 3:58.98.

However, this doesn’t mean she will go into the Olympic 400 free as the gold medal favorite, because she will not. Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who defeated Ledecky in the 400 in Tokyo three years ago, swam 3:55.44 earlier this week at her national trials. Canadian teenage phenom Summer McIntosh, who broke the 400 world record last year before Titmus got it back, will also be a formidable challenge to Ledecky.

Or, perhaps it’s better to say Ledecky will be a formidable challenge to both of them, and she certainly will be up to the task, believing she will be even faster in Paris next month.

“I’m pretty happy with the time,” she said. “Historically the 400 hasn’t been a great race for me at trials. But today, really that was the best that I’ve felt in a 400 free at a trials meet as long as I can remember so that’s what I’m happiest about. The time is just a bonus as well.”

Ledecky was given a very deserving stage Saturday for her sport to acknowledge the greatness of her remarkable consistency. How fitting it was that she was performing on the grandest stage of her career, swimming in an NFL stadium in front of a crowd of more than 20,000 who stood and roared as she tore through the water in her final lap.

“I was blown away walking out there seeing all those fans,” she said. “In prelims, I got up on the blocks for my heat and it got quiet and then got loud again and I started shaking and I went down to take your mark and I said, ‘Relax, Katie, relax, don’t false start, don’t false start.’”

There was no chance of that happening. She is in the best of places at this stage of her career, swimming faster than she was the last time the Olympics came around with three more events left at the trials: the 200, 800 and 1,500 freestyle. In Paris, she will be favored to win the 800 and 1,500.

“I feel that I enjoy this more and more each year,” Ledecky said. “I pride myself on that consistency. I challenge myself to stay consistent. To be really consistent is something that I’m really happy with.”

And even though she is far from finished, talking about going on to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics after Paris is over, she strikes a reflective tone now and then.

“I just appreciate the fact that I’ve been able to have this long of a career, stay injury free, stay pretty healthy, be able to do this this many years.”

Here she is in 2024, but often her thoughts go back to 2012, when as a 15-year-old water bug she won her first Olympic gold medal in the 800 freestyle in London.

“After London, I wanted to get back to that level and prove that I wasn’t just a one-hit wonder,” she said Saturday. “But at the same time, I reminded myself that anything more than that is just icing on the cake, cherry on top, whatever. Again, I just never thought I would make it to that one Olympics. That’s the perspective that I think that I’ve been able to maintain and that keeps me focused and keeps me enjoying the sport so much.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 US Olympic swimming trials: Katie Ledecky makes team for Paris