American swimming fans have been spoiled in recent years to have the two greatest swimmers of all time competing in red, white and blue swim caps.
From his breakout 2004 Athens Olympics performance through his final games in the 2016 Rio Summer Games, Michael Phelps was the premier talent in the sport, with no one displaying the kind of success he had in the history of swimming. Since the 2012 London Olympics, Katie Ledecky has become the world’s best distance swimmer and holds more international gold medals than any female swimmer in history.
The comparisons between the American swimmers who each began their careers early and who have risen to the top of the sport have inevitably come up between the two all-time great talents. Sporting News is taking a look at the resumes compare.
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Katie Ledecky vs. Michael Phelps
No swimmer has won more gold medals than Phelps. No Olympian has won more gold than Phelps. And in the latter, it’s not particularly close. Phelps won 23 Olympic gold medals to go along with 26 FINA World Championship golds — and another FINA World Championship Short Course gold — as well as 16 Pan Pacific golds. In total, he has 66 gold medals, 14 silver and three bronze medals.
Phelps has several years on Ledecky, so obviously the totals right now aren’t going to be even, but Ledecky also started picking up wins earlier in her career. She claimed her first Olympic gold at 15 years old, while Phelps didn’t pick one up until age 19. To this point in her career, Ledecky has five Olympic gold medals, 15 long-course FINA World Championship golds and eight Pan Pacific golds for a total of 28 golds, five silvers and a bronze.
In addition, Phelps’ versatility has helped him pick up so many medals in his career. He has won international gold medals in three of the five individual styles, the butterfly, individual medley and freestyle. Ledecky has been the world’s best distance swimmer since age 15, but she has only earned medals in the freestyle events internationally. Phelps has also competed in all three relays: 4×100-meter freestyle, 4×200 freestyle and 4×100 medley relay.
Still, that gives her four different individual lengths of which to swim. She also will now be given one more in the Olympics moving forward as the 1500 freestyle was added to the women’s side for the first time this year, adding perhaps one of her most dominant races to the potential list of medals she can grab.
These two athletes haven’t just won medals: they make history in doing so seemingly each time.
During Phelps’ career, he set 29 individual world records and 10 relay records. It seemed that every year he stepped into the pool, he was going to shatter either a world record he had previously left untouched or reset one of his own records. To date, his 400 individual medley remains his lone individual world record untouched, while the relay units he was a part of that set records in the 4×100 freestyle relay, 4×200 freestyle relay and 4×100 medley relay are still intact.
Since there hasn’t been an Olympic Games since his retirement following the 2016 Rio Games, there are more of his Olympic records left standing. His 200 freestyle, 200 butterfly, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley all remain the numbers to beat, as do all his three relay times. Phelps also still holds the American records in the 200 freestyle, 200 butterfly, 400 individual medley and in the three relays.
Ledecky is still entering the prime of her swimming career and is at the point where it is an annual routine for her to set and reset records. She holds the world records in the 400 freestyle, 800 freestyle and 1500 freestyle. She also holds the Olympic records in the 400 freestyle and 800 freestyle from her trip to Brazil in 2016. Ledecky also has the American records in the three distance freestyle events and was a member of the 4×200 freestyle relay as well.
It is still early on Ledecky, as she is only 24 years old and likely has many more years left of competing left.
But both got off to swimming internationally at an early age. Phelps debuted in the 2000 Sydney Olympics at 15, while Ledecky made her first Olympic appearance in the 2012 London Games, also coming at the age of 15.
In 2016, when Phelps won the 200 butterfly, he became the oldest swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal at the age of 31, though he later lost that record to Anthony Ervin on the final day of the Olympics when the 35-year-old won the 50 freestyle. Phelps added one more individual gold and a silver at the 2016 Rio Games, along with three gold medals on relays.
The oldest swimmer to ever earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team was Dara Torres, who, at 41, qualified for a place on the 2008 U.S. Team. There, she earned silver medals in the 50 free, 4×100 medley relay and 4×100 freestyle relay. She was also, at the time, the oldest swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal eight years earlier when, swimming on the 4×100 freestyle and 4×100 medley relays, she claimed the two top medals at 33 years old.
Can Ledecky continue to win gold medals into her 30s? If she competes in the 2024 and 2028 Summer Games, she will be 27 and 31. There’s a long way to go until we can speculate on whether Ledecky will still be swimming as late in her career as Phelps, Ervin or Torres, but with the way she’s owned the distance free events to this point in her career, it would seem to be a bad idea to bet against her ability to continue to win gold for the foreseeable future.