By David Rieder
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, June 29. THE Nationals' last session featured just six finals, but these six races featured some of the meet's top swims, including a pair of world bests on complete opposite sides of the spectrum from each other. These two stand among the brightest hopes for gold at Worlds in Barcelona next month, but two veterans splashes of their own that proved just as newsworthy and significant.
First Star: Katie Ledecky, women's 1500 free, first place, 15:47.15
Ledecky kicked off the night in absolutely stellar fashion, swimming more than a second under Kate Ziegler's world record-pace for almost half of the race before fading back slightly. Ledecky split 8:22.61 at the 800 mark of her mile, just off the 8:22.41 she won the 800 in on Tuesday. Ledecky figures to enter Barcelona firing on all cylinders and thus a threat to medal – or perhaps win – the 400, 800, and 1500. Ledecky clocked the fourth-fastest time in history; only Kate Ziegler, Alessia Filippi, and Lotte Friis have swum faster, the latter two with the aid of tech-suits in 2009.
Entering the race, Ledecky knew that Great Britain's Jazmin Carlin had swum a world-leading 15:47.26 earlier this week, but she looked like she would have to settle for no. 2 as she began to slow down towards the end of the race. Then, Ledecky split a 29.18 on the last 50 – compared to 31.63 on the previous lap – to clip Carlin's mark. Both swam their respective races alone; when racing each other in Barcelona in a month's time, they have a very strong chance to chase Ziegler's world record, 15:42.54.
Second Star: Nathan Adrian, men's 50 free, first place, 21.47
With one race to go on the schedule, Ledecky had the first star locked up before Adrian put a scare into those hopes. After a four day break following his 100 free win, Adrian blazed his 50, touching in 21.47. He dethroned James Magnussen (21.52) as the top swimmer in the world this year. That fell just one one-hundredth shy of his techsuit-aided 21.46 lifetime best from the 2009 Worlds. More importantly, the time would have beaten out Cullen Jones' 21.54 for the Olympic silver medal, and Adrian moves to within striking distance of Florent Manaudou's Olympic gold-winning time of 21.34. Adrian fired on all cylinders tonight; doing so at Worlds for the whole week would put him in contention for double sprint gold.
Third Star: Caitlin Leverenz, women's 200 IM, first place, 2:10.13
This final award could have gone to Connor Jaeger, who continued to rack up distance titles after posting the third-fastest time in the world in the 800, or Anthony Ervin, whose runner-up finish in the 50 free earned him an individual swim in Barcelona, but Leverenz wins for her gutsy performance in the 200 IM. After not making the team prior to the final night of competition, Leverenz jumped out in front quickly, quite the opposite of her usual strategy of pulling away from the field on the breaststroke leg.
Leverenz split 1:00.86 at the 100 split on her way to a final time of 2:10.13; in comparison, at last year's Olympic Trials, where she won in 2:10.22, she split only 1:01.70 at the 100. She faded somewhat down the stretch, but she had plenty in the tank to hold off Elizabeth Beisel and secure her spot in Barcelona. Leverenz now turns her attention to making another medal run in Barcelona. She now stands fourth in the world behind Alicia Coutts, Ye Shiwen, and Katinka Hosszu, and she will have to beat at least one to return to the medal podium she stood on a year ago in London.
Meanwhile, the final day brought the announcement of two veterans making the World Champs team. First, Natalie Coughlin took the win in the 50 free to earn her spot. Her 24.97 won't threaten for a medal, but she has the international experience to challenge in any race she competes in, and competitors will appreciate seeing Coughlin back in individual action internationally after a disappointing Olympic Trials last year. Secondly, Michael Klueh found his way onto the Worlds team after Jaeger, for the purposes of both convenience and classiness, withdrew from consideration for the 800 free relay to open the door for Klueh. After so many years of coming up one spot short (five times since 2009), Klueh will finally represent the U.S. on the biggest stage.
With the World Championships roster set, now the real fun begins. This American team has some key differences from the squad that won half the gold medals on offer in the pool at last summer's Olympics. The winners of four of those individual golds – Michael Phelps, Rebecca Soni, and Allison Schmitt – won't be in Barcelona, opening the door for new faces to step up and maintain American dominance. This new squad might go through some growing pains on the way, but new leaders, such as Adrian and Ledecky, will push this team closer to the dominance of its predecessors.