Around the Swimming World: What’s So Frustrating for Katie Ledecky

katie ledecky, around the swimming world
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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By David Rieder.

Katie Ledecky had reason to be frustrated—not because she fell off her scintillating world record pace down the stretch in the 800 free and not because she finished behind both Taylor Ruck and Rikako Ikee in the 200 free, in a time of 1:55.15. It was because over the previous few months, she had consistently swum faster.

“I have been a lot faster than that a number of times this year,” Ledecky said after her 200 free. “I’m a little disappointed in that time. I think I have a lot more for me in that race.”

Compare that time to Ledecky’s efforts from her three previous long course meets this year: 1:55.42 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis in May, 1:54.56 from three weeks later in Santa Clara and 1:54.60 from U.S. Nationals two weeks ago. Either of the latter two performances would have put her ahead of Ikee and almost even with Ruck.

Sure, she swam the 800 less than an hour before her 200, so it’s excusable if she was fatigued. Perhaps that’s why Ledecky couldn’t shift into her trademark higher gear on the last 50 to keep up with the two teenagers she was racing.

But it’s worth remembering that her 800 was not her top time this season, either. Yes, Ledecky’s 8:09.13 was the fifth-fastest performance in history and almost five seconds faster than anyone else has ever swum, but she was two seconds quicker in Santa Clara, with an 8:07.27. And that was on a chilly night in what no one would describe as record-breaking conditions.


Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

It’s foolish to expect world records from anyone, even an all-time great like Ledecky, but it does seem odd that she hasn’t come close to her best times this summer after smashing one of her own world records in her very first long course race this year. That was in the 1500 free at the Indianapolis meet, when she swam a time of 15:20.48, exactly five seconds faster than her previous best.

A world record in the middle of the season—which, you might remember, is not unheard of for Katie Ledecky.

“I guess I don’t need to taper ever again,” Ledecky joked. “I need my confidence to be skyrocketed to swim fast. It’s not really about the rest for me—it’s how I feel my training’s been.”

Maybe she shouldn’t taper anymore. Maybe, for whatever reason, her confidence has tapered off in the four months since.

Yes, Ledecky’s bronze in the 200 free was her first medal of that color at any international meet. But here’s what’s even more unusual: Before this year, Ledecky had never not swum her season-best times at the end-of-season international meet. At Pan Pacs, she swam slower than her season bests twice on day one.

Still, Ledecky did manage to find a bright side to her disappointing evening: She was faster in both the 800 and 200 than she was in the same situation four years earlier at the Pan Pacs in Australia. And from the loss, she found motivation.

“Of course it’s motivating,” she said. “It’s something that motivated me last year, getting silver in the 200, and I really put a lot of work into trying not to have that happen again. It’s all about the process, and I know that I still have two more years to go until the big show here in Tokyo. I hope to be here competing in that event and get another shot at it.”

Wet Take

Taylor Ruck and Rikako Ikee just proved their stardom.

Both are 18 years old, but neither Ruck nor Ikee are newcomers to international racing. If we’re surprised at their successes in that 200 free final against Ledecky, we probably shouldn’t be.

Ruck won the Commonwealth Games title in the 200 free earlier this year in 1:54.81. In Tokyo, she knocked four tenths off that time to win in 1:54.44, making her the fourth-fastest performer in history behind the last three Olympic gold medalists in the event: Federica Pellegrini, Allison Schmitt and Ledecky.


Taylor Ruck — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Before the race, Ruck battled some nerves. Yes, Ledecky will be her training partner at Stanford beginning next month, but she found it difficult to ignore Ledecky’s near presence in the race, and she almost psyched herself out.

“It’s the name, I guess, because she is the fastest woman on the planet in a lot of races,” Ruck said, according to the Associated Press. “My coach kind of saw that, so he told me to focus on my lane and my race.”

That all worked out nicely.

As for Ikee, she moved into a tie for 10th all-time with her silver medal-winning time of 1:54.85. The medal was Ikee’s first of the individual variety at a senior-level international meet. (The swimmer Ikee tied with, by the way, is 17-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus, who skipped the 200 free to focus on the 800-meter event, where she took a silver medal.)

Not long after the 200 free, Ikee propelled Japan to silver in the mixed 4×100 medley relay with a 55.53 fly split. The 100 fly is the event for which Ikee is best-known, and she should be the favorite in that race coming up Saturday, even with World Champs medalists Emma McKeon and Kelsi Dahlia in the race.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Ruck and Ikee both validated themselves in the same race with wins over Ledecky. If only Titmus was there, too…

Wet Take No. 2

What happened to the American women?

Lilly King won the 100 breast, but her time was 1:05.44, short of her own season-best time (1:05.36) and rival Yulia Efimova’s world No. 1 time (1:04.98). She was a whopping 1.31 seconds slower than her own world record of 1:04.13, and the look on King’s face after she touched made her displeasure very clear.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Later, on the mixed 4×100 medley relay, Kathleen Baker led off in 59.29, 1.29 seconds off the 100 back world record she set 12 days earlier. On the anchor leg, Simone Manuel split 52.74—the same Simone Manuel that won last year’s 100 free World title in 52.27. Also at those World Champs, Manuel anchored four relays with splits between 52.14 and 52.23.

Not that the male swimmers on that relay swam particularly well, either—hence the team swimming more than three seconds slower than its world record from last year’s World Championships.

There were other subpar efforts—none of the women swimming the 400 IM improved on their times from Nationals, for instance—but those 100-meter times stand out. It’s just surprising that three typically-reliable performers would fall so flat on day one of a big international meet.

King, Baker and Manuel have three days remaining to bounce back, and if they don’t, that will make a dent in the Team USA medal count.

Useless Stats of the Day

Three American men under 14:50 in the 1500 free is not unprecedented.

The 1500 free was considered a relatively weak event in the U.S. after Connor Jaeger’s retirement. Last year, for instance, Americans True Sweetser and Robert Finke finished 16th and 21st, respectively, in the event at the World Championships.

Not a weakness anymore. After Pan Pacs, Jordan Wilimovsky ranks fourth in the world in the event at 14:46.93, followed closely by Zane Grothe (14:48.40) and Finke (14:48.70), both ranked in the top eight. That makes three American men under 14:50 in one year, which has only happened once before: In 2008, when Peter Vanderkaay, Erik Vendt and Larsen Jensen were all under the barrier.

Leah Smith dropped one-hundredth in the 800 free.

Smith’s furious finish was not quite enough to catch Titmus for the Pan Pacs silver in the 800 free, but she at least managed a lifetime best with her 8:17.21. Her previous best at last year’s World Championships, a swim which also earned her bronze: 8:17.22.

Despite the miniscule improvement, Smith actually fell one spot in the all-time rankings, from 12th to 13th, as Titmus moved ahead of her in the rankings.

Aquatic Stock Watch


Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia Ltd.

UP – Cate Campbell

Campbell dove in for the anchor leg of the mixed 4×100 medley relay with her Australian team more than a second behind Japan. She promptly out-split Japanese anchor Tomoni Aoki by more than three seconds, and her 50.93 split was the fastest in history, not to mention more than a second quicker than her flat-start lifetime best (52.06).

Perhaps most astoundingly, Campbell out-split Manuel by almost two seconds.

Remember that going into Friday’s individual 100 free, but also this: At the Commonwealth Games in April, Campbell anchored the women’s 4×100 free relay on night one in 51.00, before Pan Pacs the fastest in history. But when the individual 100 free came around, Campbell tightened up and ended up finishing second behind her younger sister, Bronte, in 52.69.

DOWN – U.S. Men’s 100 Breast

Unlike their female teammates, the U.S. men posted strong swims on day one in Tokyo, particularly in the 1500 free and 200 free. But the 100 breast was ugly, with top seed Andrew Wilson falling to fifth (59.70) and Michael Andrew fading to seventh (1:00.04). Both were at least a half-second off their respective season-best times.

Andrew rebounded a bit when he split 59.21 on the mixed medley relay, but Japan’s Yasuhiro Koseki (58.57) and Australia’s Jake Packard (58.68) both split much faster.

Still, Wilson and Andrew are locked in as the two U.S. 100 breaststrokers heading to next year’s World Championships. If the American men want to retain possession of the 4×100 medley relay at that meet, they will need improvement from one or both—particularly when Adam Peaty can split 57.60 (like he did Thursday at the European Championships) and still be a full second off his best effort.


Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

UP – Italy

One last note on the European Championships: The Italians quietly put together an impressive week in Glasgow, with their 22 medals good for third on the medals table behind Russia and Great Britain. On the meet’s final day, Piero Codia and Margherita Panziera both won gold medals in impressive fashion.

Codia, who barely snuck into the 100 fly final as the eighth seed, ended up dominating the race and winning in 50.64, the second-fastest time in the world. In the next event, Panziera won the 200 back in 2:06.18, also the No. 2 time in the world this year, and she broke the championship record.

That championship record had previously belonged to the legendary Krisztina Egerszegi, set in 1991—four years before Panziera was born. That 2:06.62 stood as the world record for 17 years until 2008.

Impact Race of Tomorrow: Women’s 100 Back at Pan Pacific Championships

You could just as easily slot either the women’s or men’s 100 free in this spot for some classic USA-vs.-Australia duels: Campbell against Manuel in the women’s event, Caeleb Dressel vs. Kyle Chalmers in the men’s. But the women’s 100 back will have three heavyweights from three of the charter nations that started the Pan Pacs.

Those players include the world record-holder, the former WR-holder/World Champion and the World Champion before that. Baker broke Kylie Masse’s world record less than two weeks ago, posting a 58.00 at U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif. Before that, Masse swam a 58.10 at last summer’s World Championships.

As for Emily Seebohm, she couldn’t defend her 100 back World title last summer, but she did win gold in the 200 back. She took bronze behind Masse and Baker in the 100 back at the World Championships. This past April, she came within three-hundredths of touching out Masse at the Commonwealth Games.

The Pan Pacs are not a global meet, but only six women have broken 59 this year, and all will be racing in Tokyo. The list also includes Ruck plus Americans Olivia Smoliga and Regan Smith—and remember that one American will get bounced in prelims because of the two-per-country limit

Now, there’s an extra layer of intrigue after Baker swam so much slower than her world record leading off the mixed medley relay. Still, it’s about as good a race as we will see all week, and it may take under 58—which nobody has ever accomplished—to win gold.


  1. avatar
    Patrick S

    Taylor Ruck is the fifth fastest performer all-time in the 200m free, not the fourth. Pellegrini, Schmitt, Ledecky & Sjöström have PB’s better than 1.54.44.