The 200 free final, with Katie Ledecky, Emma McKeon, Veronika Popova and the current world record holder Federica Pellegrini was the most anticipated race at the FINA World Championships. Each athlete performed exceptionally well in the semi-finals.
As has become commonplace when Ledecky races, all eyes are on her to see if she could maintain her winning streak. With wins in all 12 races she has swam at World Championship events, it was time for someone to challenge her. If there was going to be an opportunity to beat her, this would be the race. Having swam a 1:54.69 in the semi-final, just after winning the 1500, it seemed unlikely her streak would end, but fatigue had to be setting in, and her competitors knew it.
The Race Analysis
As the race began, in the first 50m, 3 different strategies were at play – Pellegrini, Ledecky and Leah Smith executing more short strokes in faster succession; McKeon, Katinka Hosszu and Charlotte Bonnet doing the opposite, taking longer to execute less stronger strokes; and finally, Veronika Popova and Siobahn Haughey bringing up the middle, with a mid-frequency, stronger fast stroke style.
McKeon, Hosszu and Bonnet, employing the longer stronger strategy, generated more speed in the first lap than the rest of the field, along with higher distance per stroke (DPS), and therefore a better stroke index. These three athletes were in front at the end of the first 50m, with McKeon clearly out in front. Of the three, it was McKeon who generated the highest DPS, as well as producing the most speed. If Hosszu and Bonnet can increase their stroke count without sacrificing DPS, their speed will immediately pick up as well.
Ledecky, Pellegrini and Smith, using the short, faster stroke strategy, were not quite able to match the speed of their longer stronger stroke counterparts. Of the three, Pellegrini gained slightly more distance per stroke than Ledecky, who in turn got more distance than Smith. If this strategy is to work for Smith, she will need to increase her DPS to keep pace. The race here was really between Ledecky and Pellegrini, who tied on split time, stroke count, turn time and speed. The differentiating factor between these two on this length was time underwater. Ledecky registered 1.2 seconds longer underwater, which compensated for Pellegrini’s elevated DPS.
At the 100m mark, McKeon was still in front, followed by Ledecky then Hosszu. Pellegrini was well behind at this point, tied for 4th with Popova. Both Hosszu and Bonnet lost ground on their longer stronger strategy. Hosszu falling from 2nd to 3rd, while Bonnet fell back significantly further, now tied for 2nd last with Haughey.
Speed took a hit across the board on the 2nd 50, as is expected, with Ledecky, Popova and Smith reducing the least on the length. While Pellegrini did remain behind throughout this length, she was also able to retain the most energy in terms of an efficient stroke index, as well as through slightly increasing her DPS .03m. Conversely, it was Ledecky and Smith who were able to maintain the most speed throughout this length. It was clear at this point the longer stronger stroke lost momentum, the shorter quicker stroke held pace better, and the folks in the middle basically split the difference.
As we head into the third length of the race, it is Ledecky and McKeon tied for first, Popova in second and Pellegrini still behind in 4th place. Ledecky’s endurance is shining through on this length, as the only competitor to increase DPS, it would appear she still has some strength to pull from. However, she was also the only competitor not to increase her stroke count, while also dropping overall speed more than others. This may be a sign she is starting to tire from all her distance races earlier in the week.
McKeon, now tied for first rather than being ahead of the field, lost ground on three metrics (speed, DPS and stroke index). The longer, stronger strategy no longer playing in her favor either. Finally, Pellegrini began to ramp up her performance as she got acquainted with the back half of this race. While still behind at this point, we are starting to see her power and experience come through, as she prepares to bring it home in the last 50m.
The final 50m of this race were intense, presenting quite a few shifts in such a short period of time. Ledecky, who is typically a powerhouse in the final lap, was unable to bring it home. She lost ground on all metrics, costing her valuable time, ultimately resulting in her finishing second for the first time in her championship competition career. McKeon also continued to lose traction throughout this length, reducing speed and stroke index without supplementing with an increase in stroke count. She was able to keep pace with Ledecky though, finishing it off in a tie for second place.
Finally, and certainly the highlight of the World Championships so far, was watching the surprising, and very sharp, contrast coming from Pellegrini as she reclaimed her world champion position for this event. She had been behind throughout the entire race, and wasn’t really considered a big threat. It wasn’t until the final 25m where she suddenly came out of nowhere to overtake both Ledecky and McKeon. She accomplished this through a combination of changes: increasing her speed more than the rest of the field, improving by 0.04 m/s on the length, simultaneously reducing her stroke rate by increasing stroke count while maintaining power in her DPS. It was an incredible performance to watch her reclaim the title.
There are so many areas to learn from in this event. Carefully choose which strategy utilize in these mid-distance events. Make sure you have the stamina to support both going out strong enough to stay with the front runners, but retain enough energy to bring it home at the end. Understand your stroke index, to employ your optimal distance x speed ratio (will be different for every single athlete). We can’t wait to see what next event has in store for us.
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Women 200 Free Race
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