4:01 400 Free Qualifies Katie Ledecky for Olympics, But She’s Still Underdog for Tokyo

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

4:01 400 Free Qualifies Katie Ledecky for Olympics, But She’s Still Underdog for Tokyo

On the other side of the world, 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus had set the standard, her 3:56.90 400 freestyle at Australia’s Olympic Trials that came within a half-second of Katie Ledecky’s world record. Monday night at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Ledecky had her chance to respond, but she was unable to come close to 3:56 territory, and she ended up swimming a time two seconds slower than her own season-best time.

Ledecky would swim the first half of the race in 1:57.64, close to her own world-record pace, but she began to fall off the pace at that point. She split over 31 seconds on the sixth and eighth 50s, much slower than she typically splits in major races, but Ledecky still had plenty left in the tank to hang on and win the event and claim her ticket at a third Olympic Games — and a rematch with Titmus after the Australian ended Ledecky’s six-year winning streak in the 400 free at the 2019 World Championships. Ledecky’s final time was 4:01.27, more than two seconds behind her 3:59.25 from the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo in April that ranks her second in the world for 2021 behind Titmus.

The race for second was a back-and-forth affair as Sun Devil’s Emma Nordin took the race out fast in lane one. Nordin swam a 4:04.60 last month that had vaulted her to sixth in the world, but she swam poorly in the prelims and only qualified seventh for the final. Nordin held second place for much of the race, but two Virginia Cavaliers in the middle of the pool, Paige Madden and Leah Smith, tracked her down. Madden ended up finishing a shocking second in 4:04.86, while Smith took third in 4:06.27.

Smith had been the second American representative in the 400 free at the 2016 Olympics and both the 2017 and 2019 World Championships, but Madden had impressed earlier this year with three victories at the NCAA championships. The 22-year-old Madden took over second place at the 300-meter mark and pulled away from Smith. Meanwhile, Haley Anderson, already qualified for her Olympic team in the open water 10k, finished fourth in 4:07.42, and Nordin faded to fifth in 4:08.49.

It’s worth noting that even if Ledecky swam another 4:01 at the Tokyo Olympics, it’s unlikely she would finish any lower than second place at the Olympics. While Ledecky had made clear even before the meet that she expected to swim faster at the Games than at Trials, she still figures to be disappointed with Monday night’s time.

At the 2016 Trials, prior to Ledecky’s world record-setting swim in Rio, she swam a 3:58.98 to just miss her then-world record after swimming well under the pace for most of the event. At the two U.S. qualifying meets since then, Ledecky swam a 3:58.44 in 2017 and a 3:59.09 in 2018. In fact, Monday evening’s swim was Ledecky’s first above 4:00 at a national or international championship-type meet since she qualified for her first World Championships team in 2013.

For Ledecky’s part, she did not seem too concerned with the relatively sluggish time in the immediate aftermath of the race. Her first thought actually went to just being pleased about having a Trials following the COVID-19 pandemic and its transformative effect on the world.

“It just felt pretty surreal in the ready room that we were about to walk out for Trials finals. Just a year ago, I don’t think we knew if we would be at this point. It’s just good to be here and lock in my spot tonight,” Ledecky said. “The race was very much a blur. It kind of felt like it did five years ago. I just wanted to get my hand on the wall as quickly as I could. It wasn’t the best feeling 400. I thought it felt a little faster than that, so I was a little surprised, but I’ll take it for now.”

Ledecky has plenty of reason to be satisfied with simply getting the job done, and a lot more work remains. Just hours after the 400 free final, she will return to the pool in Omaha for two preliminary races, in the 200 free and 1500 free. She will contest the 200 free semifinals Tuesday night and then the finals of both events on Tuesday. So she undoubtedly feels some measure of relief to have locked up her spot in Tokyo.

At the same time, Ledecky seemed genuinely thrilled to see young swimmers taking the meet by storm and qualifying for their first Olympic Games. She shouted out Torri Huske, a future Stanford Cardinal swimmer just like Ledecky was, and Claire Curzan for their efforts in the 100 fly, as well as breaststrokers Michael Andrew and Andrew Wilson, a fellow Maryland native. After spending two Olympics as the youngest member of Team USA, the 24-year-old Ledecky will undoubtedly enjoy the role of helping mentor young swimmers new to that level.

“It’s so exciting to see some young swimmers coming up,” Ledecky said. “I just liked seeing Torri’s ear-to-ear grin on the medal podium gave me chills in the warmup pool. Seeing Michael cry and the emotions that came with making the team. It was a big day for Potomac Valley Swimming, my home LSC. Andrew Wilson is also from Bethesda, Maryland, so I’m really happy for him as well, and Torri and Claire and all these great swimmers that are going to be on the team.”

But from a performance standpoint, Ledecky surely faces a tough test as she aims to earn repeat gold in an event she won by almost five seconds at the Rio Games. Not since the 2012 Olympics, Ledecky’s first international meet, has she entered a race as an underdog, but the completion of the Trials period for that even leaves Titmus as the one to beat in Tokyo.


  1. Katie Ledecky 4:01.27
  2. Paige Madden 4:04.86
  3. Leah Smith 4:06.27
  4. Haley Anderson 4:07.42
  5. Emma Nordin 4:08.49
  6. Sierra Schmidt 4:09.11
  7. Kaersten Meitz 4:09.19
  8. Cavan Gormsen 4:09.85

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Lisa Zietlow Willard
2 years ago

Katie will break the world record at the Olympics. Ariarne & Katie gold & Silver just the order needs to be decided.

Aleksandar Tasic
2 years ago

My suspicion is that her 400 world record days are behind her. Bruce Gemmell knew her ways and had a way of working with her. The Standford experience was magical I can imagine but never added to her war chest. Hope I am wrong and that she has something up her sleeve. 4:01 to 3:56 is long ways at that level.

Diane Pavelin
2 years ago

I think she did what she needed to win and make the team. She still has a full slate of events, and needs to pace herself. There’s no reason to blast out a world record at the Trials-that’ll come at the Games.

2 years ago

Katie Ledecky won’t be swimming 4:01 in Tokyo .. Titmus don’t get pulled into a false sense of security ..

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