2021 Trials Vision: Katie Ledecky and Who Else in the 800 Free

Katie Ledecky of the United States of America (USA) reacts after winning in the women’s 800m Freestyle Final during the Swimming events at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships, Gwangju, South Korea, 27 July 2019.
Katie Ledecky Photo Courtesy: Patrick B. Kraemer

2021 Trials Vision: Katie Ledecky and Who Else in the 800 Free

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.

The swimmer to beat in the 800 free at the Tokyo Olympics, whenever they are held, remains the same. It’s Katie Ledecky, owner of five Olympic gold medals and 15 World Championships. Adding the 1500 freestyle to the women’s program for the first time might change some of the equation for distance swimmers at the 2021 Trials. But if history is any guide, it may just mean more medals for Ledecky.

The Favorite

Katie Ledecky. That’s the whole section.

The Contenders

Leah Smith enters 2021 Trials as a medal contender in Tokyo, with a Worlds bronze from 2017. Erica Sullivan has a pair of 8:26s before her 20th birthday. Sierra Schmidt and Ashley Twichell have both been 8:27 recently (Twichell was 8:25 in 2016). Haley Anderson and Cierra Runge are also veteran contenders.

On the younger side, Taylor Ault and Megan Byrnes have been in the low 8:30s but neither medaled at the World University Games last summer. Chase Travis went 8:30 at age 17 last summer.

The Longshots

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Ally McHugh Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

Few swimmers have come as far in the last four years as Ally McHugh. The Penn State grad was 68th in the 400 individual medley and 80th in the 200 IM in Omaha at the 2016 Trials. Since then, she’s become a full-fledged national team member, with an NCAA title, five national championships and trips to the World University Games, Pan Pacs and 2019 Worlds.

The 400 IM might be her best shot at Tokyo, but the 800 is a viable option, too. She’ll have the longer IM on Day 1 of the 2021 Trials, the shorter IM on Day 4 and then a run at the 800 on Day 7. Her top time of 8:26.04 from nationals in 2019 is the fastest for an American outside of the Ledecky-Smith duopoly.

(A close second, by the way, to that rapid development over the last four years is another 800 free contender Kaersten Meitz, who was 64th in the 200 and 800 and 29th in the 400 free at 2016 Trials.)

Looking ahead to 2021

The loss in the 400 free at Worlds indicated that Ledecky wasn’t at her best in Gwangju. But Ledecky still won gold there in the 800 in 8:13.58 in a gutsy swim. It’s telling that the three swimmers behind her – Simona Quadarella (8:14.99), Ariarne Titmus (8:15.70), Sarah Kohler (8:16.43) – all set personal bests/national records and still couldn’t catch Ledecky, who was nine seconds shy of her world record. Toss in Wang Jianjiahe’s 8:14.64 at Chinese nationals in 2019 (she’s only 16, so one to watch), and Ledecky is still a cut above, the only one to have visited the subterranean depths below 8:10.

The fact is that Ledecky at her best is better than anyone who’s ever swum the event. So the question is, will Ledecky be at that best? Or, as Ledecky’s swims have reframed the question time and again, will her best continue to get better?

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