By David Rieder
When you woke up this morning, you were probably still in awe of what Katie Ledecky pulled off on Sunday night. To recap, she broke her own world record in the 800 free at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Austin, clocking in at 8:06.68 to surpass her old mark of 8:07.39 – which just this summer annihilated her own previous record by almost four seconds. The mark was the first long course world record set in January in a decade, and the time stands seven-and-a-half seconds ahead of what anyone else has ever recorded.
And that wasn’t even her most impressive performance of the meet.
Neither was her 3:59.54 in the 400 free, merely the fifth-best performance ever swum.
After all, it’s not exactly big news that Ledecky is by far the best in the world in those events. Nothing could have happened before July to prevent Ledecky from entering the Olympic Games as the heavy favorite to win Olympic gold in both the 400 and 800. Rather, it was Ledecky’s exploits in the shorter freestyle events in Austin that put her rivals – and the history books – on notice.
Ledecky won the World title in the 200 free last August, edging out a loaded field that included the event’s previous two global titlists, Federica Pellegrini and Missy Franklin. That day in Kazan, Ledecky checked in at 1:55.16, which matched her lifetime best from the previous year. But just 24 hours later, as Ledecky stood behind the blocks waiting to anchor the U.S. 800 free relay squad, she watched as Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom led off in 1:54.31, the top time in the world for the 200 free.
Sjostrom had shied away from the individual 200 free at major international meets in favor of one and two-lap races in freestyle and butterfly – and that decision paid off in Kazan she medaled in all four, setting a world record in a dominant effort in the 100 fly. But she announced this fall that she planned on swimming the event at the Olympics in 2016, throwing down the gauntlet to Ledecky, who has never not finished first in a race at an Olympics, World Championships, or Pan Pacs.
Typically contesting different lineups of events and living halfway around the world from each other, Ledecky and Sjostrom had never actually raced head-to-head prior to this weekend in Austin. But when the two got together finally, swimming in the middle two lanes in the final of the women’s 200 free, Ledecky made quick work of her new rival, winning the race by almost two seconds and clocking a personal best time of 1:54.43.
And just like that, Sjostrom, seemingly the only real threat in any of Ledecky’s three individual events, saw her hopes of Olympic gold in the 200 free greatly diminished as Ledecky almost topped Sjostrom’s top-ranked time from last year – at an in-season meet in January, more than six months away from their targeted peak at the Olympic Games and at a point in the season where the word “taper” does not exist in anyone’s vocabulary.
It’s not that Sjostrom swam poorly in Austin; quite the contrary, she posted scintillating statement swims in the 100 fly and in both sprint free events and even recorded what would typically be considered a stellar time in the 200 free (1:56.14). But Ledecky, as she has done to so many other rivals, made the number one-ranked swimmer in the world in 2015 look slow.
But for all Ledecky showed in her three dominant wins in Austin, it was her sole runner-up finish that really opened eyes. Sjostrom won the 100 free in an impressive 53.12, while Ledecky finished second in 53.75 – ahead of top U.S. sprinters like Abbey Weitzeil, Missy Franklin, Amanda Weir, and Natalie Coughlin. The time cut eight tenths of a second off Ledecky’s personal best, would have ranked in the top-ten in the world last year –second among Americans – and puts her squarely in the hunt for not just a spot on the American 400 free relay team at the Olympics but perhaps a berth in the individual 100 as well.
Yes, now that Ledecky has cracked into the 53-second range, she could seriously be a contender to make the Olympic team in four different freestyle events. That’s historically unheard of; the last person to even swim both the 800 free and the 400 free relay for the U.S. at an Olympics was Shirley Babashoff at the 1976 Games in Montreal. In fact, no one even swam both the 400 free individual and relay events again until Allison Schmitt did so in London in 2012.
And suddenly, after her performance in Austin, the world record-holder in the 400 and 800 free looks like a must-have for the American 400 free relay, a squad that has struggled mightily in recent seasons, including a distant third-place finish last summer in Kazan. Would Ledecky seriously consider contesting the individual 100 free at the Olympics? That’s a decision that she will have to make with her coach, Bruce Gemmell. But the most incredible part: doing so no longer sounds far-fetched.
Game-Changers of the Weekend
With just over five months to go until Olympic Trials, it’s about that time when fans start trying to fit the puzzle pieces of the U.S. Olympic team together. Here’s a quick rundown of who made their case for inclusion in those early projections this weekend in Austin.
*When Dana Vollmer finished fourth in the 100 fly at last summer’s Nationals in the 100 fly, her comeback bid had just begun; in just six months, the new mother has dropped from a 58.94 to a swift 57.61 in her signature event. While she still finished well behind Sjostrom’s 56.38 in Austin, Vollmer’s time would have ranked ninth in the world last year and behind only Kelsi Worrell among Americans.
Vollmer has quickly jumped back into the “favorites” category, and don’t be surprised to see her named to her third Olympic team this summer. Getting well under 57 in the 100 fly and perhaps even standing on the medal podium once again do not seem as unrealistic as they may have for Vollmer six months ago.
*Katie Meili broke out in 2015 in the 100 breast, an event in which she finished the year ranked third in the world, but her performance in the 200 breast this weekend in Austin puts her squarely into contention for an Olympic berth in that event as well. She clocked 2:23.69 in that event’s consolation final on Friday night, a time which only Micah Lawrence (2:22.04) and Laura Sogar (2:23.54) surpassed last year. The feel-good perseverance story of 2015, Meili has gotten her Olympic year off to the right start.
*Calling Ryan Lochte a favorite to make the Olympic team is not really a stretch; in fact, it would be a massive upset if the 18-time World Champion missed out on selection for Rio. But the 31 year old jumped back into the fray this weekend into an event he had not competed in since 2013: the 400 IM. Lochte won Olympic gold in the 400 IM 2012 but had seemingly moved on from that grueling race. Maybe not; after failing to make an impact individually over the past few years in any event besides his stalwart 200 IM, Lochte jumped back in the 400 IM and clocked a 4:12.66, which would have ranked eighth in the world last year.
If he chooses to defend his Olympic crown, Lochte would be seeking the sixth-straight gold for the Americans in the event; Tom Dolan won gold in 1996 and 2000, and Michael Phelps set world records on his way to the top spot in both 2004 and 2008 before Lochte captured the win in London.