GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) — Adversity finally found Katie Ledecky and when it did, it hit hard.
Headaches, irregular pulse, elevated heart rate, sleeplessness, nausea. The symptoms she experienced struck the American star out of nowhere at the world swimming championships and derailed what had promised to be a stellar meet.
She suffered a loss in an event she’s dominated, withdrew from two others and spent seven hours in a Gwangju hospital enduring a battery of tests that never produced an exact diagnosis.
She still managed to win one gold and two silver medals.
“I know I can tough it out now if something like this comes up,” she said.
It’s a lesson she never had to learn until now.
Ledecky has been on an upward trajectory ever since she won the 800-meter freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics as an unheralded 15-year-old.
In 2013, she won four golds at the worlds in Barcelona, setting a pair of world records. Two years later in Kazan, Russia, she swept every freestyle from 200 to 1,500, setting two more world records. Then came the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and she knocked off two more world records.
Her accomplishments, coupled with Michael Phelps’ retirement after Rio, made Ledecky the star of the U.S. team.
“The external expectations are just outrageous,” said her coach, Greg Meehan.
Still, Ledecky came into Gwangju more prepared than ever to meet or exceed them. Until she started feeling poorly.
She settled for silver in her first event, the 400 freestyle, won by 18-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus. Ledecky then withdrew from the 200 free heats and the 1,500 free final.
“We’re pretty sure it was some sort of viral thing or other illness,” she said.
She got back in the pool in time to help the U.S. take silver in the 4x200 free relay. She was still feeling the lingering effects of her illness during the 800 free preliminaries.
Back in her room, she watched as world records fell in three events and she texted Meehan.
“I so, so badly want to have a good swim tomorrow,” she wrote. “Watching all those records tumble really fired me up.”
Ledecky returned Saturday for the 800 final and was talking to Meehan when she felt overheated and another wave of nausea hit.
Then it was time to dive in.
Ledecky led the first seven laps. Italy’s Simona Quadarella took over control for the second half of the 16-lap race. It all came down to the final 50 meters.
Ledecky outsprinted Quadarella to the wall for her only gold of the meet.
“Kind of knew I had a little more speed than Simona and trusted that I could rely on that in the end,” she said. “I just wanted to end on the best possible note.”
Did she ever.
“I told her it was probably the best racing I’ve ever seen her do,” Meehan said. “That was just willing yourself to win.”
Ledecky’s teammate, Caeleb Dressel, was duly impressed.
“Knowing Katie, if she says I’m feeling a little under the weather it probably means something’s very, very wrong,” he said. “But goodness, that girl’s tough as nails.”
Ledecky felt grateful to her family, coaches, teammates and friends for their support through her illness.
“Just being able to pull that out for them meant a lot,” she said.
Besides three medals, Ledecky is taking home the hard-won knowledge that she discovered a different kind of toughness than the kind that gets her through the daily grind of training.
“It was challenging for me to have to think on the fly,” she said. “To see where I was at and take confidence in my training.”
She plans to visit doctors when she returns home in another attempt to figure out what knocked her down.
“Each swim at these meets is unique and has its own story,” she said. “This one definitely has one that I’ll be telling for a while.”