Katie Ledecky Makes History as First Olympic Champion in Women's 1500m Freestyle, Wins First Gold in Tokyo
Katie Ledecky's pile of Olympic medals just got one more gold in Tokyo!
The swimmer, 24, finished first in the women's 1500m freestyle with a time of 15:37.34 on Wednesday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Center. On Monday, during her preliminary heat, Ledecky set an Olympic record with 15:35.35 in the event's Summer Games debut. (The 1500m has been part of the world championship competition since 2001 and Ledecky holds the world record of 15:20.48 which she set in 2018.)
Ledecky was a full 4.07 seconds ahead of fellow Team USA swimmer Erica Sullivan, who won silver with 15:41.41. Germany's Sarah Kohler took bronze with 15:42.91 — 5.57 seconds behind Ledecky.
Speaking with reporters after her victory, Ledecky said she was keeping her late grandparents in her thoughts while in the water. "I thought about my grandparents since I lost my grandparent two years ago, but I just really love them all and thinking about them makes me happy," she said. "They are the toughest people I know. I knew I wasn't going to die out there – I was going to get through it."
Ledecky also shared that her attitude going into each race is one of the reasons she's "been so successful" in her career.
"I approach each race with a belief in myself. It's the attitude I've always had that's why I've been so successful," the athlete said. "Anything can happen, [the attitude I go in with is] I can beat the world record in this race. That's the kind of pressure and confidence I try to build up. It's a blessing to have that attitude. I think that's why I broke so many world records and swam fast. It's hard to maintain for nine years but, I've learned a lot over the years."
For more on the Tokyo Olympics and other top stories, listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day.
Just before her 1500m race, Ledecky also competed in the much shorter 200m freestyle on Wednesday morning.
The American — one of the stars of Team USA's swimming roster — finished in fifth place with 1:55.21, losing the gold medal to Australian Ariarne Titmus by 1.71 seconds. Hong Kong's Siobhan Bernadette Haughey won silver and Canada's Penny Oleksiak took home bronze.
Titmus also triumphed over Ledecky in the women's 400m freestyle final on Monday, which was one of three events in which Ledecky was the defending Olympic gold medalist.
In a stunning finish, Titmus caught up to Ledecky in the pool and made her move to first in the final 50m. The Australian star finished 3:56.69, just 0.67 seconds ahead of Ledecky's 3:57.36. China's Li Bingjie won bronze with 4:01.08. (American Paige Madden finished in seventh place with 4:06.81.)
Though Ledecky did not win gold, she is still the world and Olympic record holder (3:56.46), which she clocked at the 2016 Rio Games. Monday's silver was Ledecky's first individual silver medal at an Olympic Games.
After her "tough" race, Ledecky told reporters that she "delivered" by bringing home a medal for Team USA, despite it not being gold.
"I couldn't do much better than that. A tremendous race. A lot of fun. I can't be too disappointed. It was my second best swim ever [in 400m freestyle]. I felt like I fought tooth and nail and that's all you can ask for," she said, later adding, "Of course you always want to hear your national anthem, but I'm proud of how I swam and how I got to that point. It's not an easy journey, it's never an easy journey to the podium, and so it's not something I take for granted, being up there."
Ledecky, who is a specialist at distance freestyle events and a gold medal contender, will next compete in the women's 800m freestyle.
To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.