2021 Trials Vision: Can Anyone Unseat Katie Ledecky, Leah Smith in 400 free?

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Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Each day during the pre-scheduled days of the 2020 US Olympic Trials, Swimming World will take its readers back four years to the 2016 Trials in Omaha to recap each event, and will offer some insight into what the events will look like in 2021.

A year on from the 2019 World Championships, the possible rivalry between Katie Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus would’ve made headlines at this summer’s Olympics. With the world-beater Ledecky, who has redefined distance swimming, meeting an adversary who could take her down, one swimmer squarely in her prime and the other rising to international prominence – the 400 freestyle would’ve gotten prime billing in Tokyo this summer.

Instead, the collision will have to wait a year. And there’s the matter of Ledecky getting there first via the 2020 Trials … make that now, the 2021 Trials.

The Favorite

Boy, this is tough. And that’s with the full acknowledgement that in a world where Katie Ledecky didn’t exist, Leah Smith would be regarded as possibly the best American distance swimmer since Brooke Bennett (maybe since Janet Evans).

But Ledecky occupies a universe of her own. It comes with the caveat that the distance equation is changing in Tokyo with the long-awaited addition of the 1500. But short of peak Michael Phelps, is there anyone who can conserve energy in preliminary races more than Ledecky? And she is used to the longer slate of events thanks to World Championships.

Yes, Ledecky faltered at Worlds last year, getting bested by Titmus. At 19, Titmus isn’t going anywhere. But Ledecky’s response by winning the 800 (and the extenuating circumstances of an illness that shortened her meet) provide useful context.

The Contenders

More so than Ledecky, Leah Smith might benefit from a more focused program in Tokyo. If you assume she’ll chase the 200 for the relay spot, then swimming that plus the 400, 800 and 1500 is a big task. Either way, the 400 is squarely in her wheelhouse. She won silver at Worlds in 2017 and bronze in 2019, the latter her only individual medal from Gwangju.

There’s a big gap behind Smith. Kaersten Meitz won gold at the World University Games last year in 4:05.80. Melanie Margalis turned in a 4:06.35 last year at age 27. Ally McHugh has a 4:07, but she will have had the 400 medley the previous night.

Erica Sullivan has a 4:06 to her name, Rachel Stege won bronze at World Juniors last year at 4:08.30 and Sierra Schmidt has seemingly been around for years but is still just 21. Add in longer distance swimmers like Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell, who might not reach down so far in meters with the 1500 available now, and you have a lot of possibilities. But the field has a long way to go to reach Ledecky and Smith.

The Longshots

Where does Allison Schmitt fit? She’s 30 and having more fun in the pool than ever, but the silver she won in London in this event was a long time ago. Schmitt’s bread and butter at this point is the 200, due in part to the relay possibilities. Going one distance up and one down begs the question, is the 400 a better event for her than the 100? Maybe, but finishing third through sixth in the latter gets you to Tokyo. The same can’t be said of the 400.

Another longshot to watch: 15-year-old Claire Tuggle, who was seventh at World Juniors but has been 4:07.85.

Looking ahead to 2021

Ledecky will be 24 when the Tokyo Games are scheduled to start. Smith will be 26. Another year won’t hurt either, unless it includes monstrous gains for one of the young swimmers behind them. And until someone goes out and beats Ledecky, like Titmus did, the top spot is hers to lose. Smith’s grasp on that second spot is just about as secure. Only one woman – American Martha Norelius, has ever successfully defended the 400 freestyle at the Olympic Games, which she did in 1924 & 1928. Ledecky would only add to her legacy with a repeat gold in Tokyo.

2021 Trials Vision

Day 1:

Day 2:

 

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