Katie Ledecky Checks Another Box in 200 Free as She Marches On Towards Tokyo

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Katie Ledecky Checks Another Box in 200 Free as She Marches On Towards Tokyo

In 2016, Katie Ledecky became just the second female to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 free at the Olympic Games, and while the 400 and 800 were dominant, world record-smashing swims, the 200 free was a dogfight, a narrow triumph over Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, that left Ledecky feeling like she wanted to throw up.

Her attempted defense of that gold medal in 2021 will be even tougher. Ledecky has not won the 200 free at a major championships since Rio, and while her performance from the TYR Pro Swim Series in Santa Clara earlier this year (1:54.40) ranks second in the world, she ranks behind Australia’s Ariarne Titmus. Days after swimming the second-fastest time ever in the 400 free (behind Ledecky’s world record), Titmus blasted a 1:53.09 200 free. That was just 0.11 away from Federica Pellegrini’s world record, the longest-standing record in a women’s event.

On Wednesday, Ledecky secured her spot to compete in the event in Tokyo. After teenager Bella Sims went out fast and had the lead at the 50-meter mark from lane one, Ledecky and Allison Schmitt pulled ahead of the field over the middle 100 meters. On the last 50, Schmitt began to fade as Ledecky pulled away. Ledecky touched in 1:55.11, by no means her best performance and not close to the time Titmus posted but a solid effort for the first of two event finals on the night, with the 1500 free coming up after that race.

Schmitt, meanwhile, ended up in a head-to-head battle against Virginia’s Paige Madden, who finished a surprising second behind Ledecky in the 400 free. The two battled to the finish, but Schmitt managed to get her hand in one hundredth ahead, 1:56.79 to 1:56.80, to earn a berth in the individual 200 free. That qualified Schmitt for her fourth Olympic team, after previously going to the Games in 2008, 2012 and 2016. She was the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 200 free, and she remains the American record-holder.

With the swim, Schmitt made history by becoming just the fifth American woman to qualify for four Olympics, joining Jill Sterkel, Dara Torres, Jenny Thompson and Amanda Beard.

“I knew it was going to be close, but I couldn’t tell how close until I got out of the water and saw 0.01 on the board. I knew that last 50, I was going to be kicking hard and relying on that training that we’ve done and put everything I’ve got into it to know that when I finished, there was nothing more I could do,” Schmitt said. “I don’t really know what it means yet. I think it’s really fresh and it’s more than special to me now. I’m so excited to go and embrace those closest to me in celebration.”

Madden ended up third, earning a spot in the Tokyo 800 free relay, and Katie McLaughlin qualified for her first Olympics by finishing fourth in 1:57.16 to secure a spot at her first Olympics. Sims finished fifth in 1:57.53, and Brooke Forde was sixth in 1:57.61, both likely earning spots at the Olympics as relay alternates. Gabby DeLoof (1:57.86) and Leah Smith (1:58.13) took seventh and eighth, respectively.

While some of Ledecky’s swims in Omaha have not been up to the sterling high bar she has established, Greg Meehan, Ledecky’s coach at Stanford, is not concerned in the long run. Accomplishing qualification, not peak performance, was the goal for Omaha. “Mission accomplished,” Meehan said. “The reality is that she made her third Olympic team.”

Her Omaha challenge was even greater this year with Ledecky adding the 1500 free to her program. Between Monday and Wednesday, Ledecky would need to swim 4400 meters of racing, between three rounds of the 200 free and two each of the 400 and 1500.

“She’s trying to do something that nobody has ever done before. Mission accomplished. Of course we wanted to be faster, but we’re not coming in here to post world-leading times. We’re coming in here to make the team,” Meehan said. “That’s been our M.O at Stanford. You can look at our results from 2016, when we had Maya (DiRado) and Simone (Manuel) make the team and then turn around and be significantly faster in Rio and to win medals, win gold medals, individually. We were the only team in the world to have two different individual Olympic champions in 2016. We’ve got a recipe that works, and of course, you want to be faster.”

Katie Ledecky’s Road Ahead

Ledecky admitted that despite all her previous success in meets of significance, she has been extremely nervous at these Trials, largely because this is her first opportunity to swim in front of fans at a large-scale meet, and “the last really big meet I swam at was Gwangju and that wasn’t the most pleasant experience,” she said, referring to her sickness that derailed the meet.

“I think just being back in that environment was—I just needed a reminder of what that felt like,” Ledecky said of Trials. “You can’t take for granted that you’re going to make the team, and I think you see that across all the events. There are always surprises and always fast swims being thrown down. I respect my competitors so much and respect swimming in the U.S. that I have those nerves that everyone else has. I mean, it’s a tough meet.”

As Titmus has recorded her sizzling times at Australia’s Trials, those on the outside of the Ledecky bubble have unsurprisingly made comparisons about how far behind the 24-year-old American seems to be compared to her Australian rival. But Meehan insisted that he and Ledecky have not spoken at all about the results from Australia.

“You can’t win Olympic medals here,” he said. It’s not about doing anything to send a message to Australia. This is about us and staying on our path.”

Meehan said that Ledecky has improved at compartmentalizing, not letting a substandard swim bother her as she moved on to the next one, an absolute must given her grueling event schedule. He pointed out how Ledecky moved on from her 400 free and a sluggish 200 free prelims swim for her prelims heat of the 1500 free, where her 15:43.10 was what Meehan called her best swim of the week to that point. Meehan acknowledged that excess scrutiny comes with the territory for a swimmer who has had as much success and been as dominant as Ledecky, but their partnership is dependent on maintaining tunnel vision and excellent communication as swimmer and coach.

Eventually, that could mean some adjustments in the long-term plan looking towards the Olympics, depending on how everything shakes out with the rest of Trials, but that’s a conversation for Monday, when they are back home at Stanford, resetting for the final Olympic push.

“We just have to continue to get better, and that usually gives a better idea on preparation and rest. If she continues to get good, that tells us one thing. If she maintains there, that tells us another. All that is for the evaluation piece. Right now, it’s, go to make the team in those events.”

Five years removed from her iconic performance at the Rio Olympics, when Ledecky accomplished each one of her goals, it’s still those same goals that provide her primary motivation in this Tokyo quest. In these Games, with a potential four individual events ranging from 200 to 1500 meters, less than two minutes to more than 15, Ledecky will go for another huge performance, with more history in front of her.

The program is daunting, much more than in 2016, particularly with 3000 extra meters of racing and the challengers that will be seeking the same gold medals in the 200 and 400 free, but the calm, work-like approach to the pursuit of goals is just the same as it was in 2016, in 2019 and at the beginning of this week.

Results

  1. Katie Ledecky 1:55.11
  2. Allison Schmitt 1:56.79
  3. Paige Madden 1:56.80
  4. Katie McLaughlin 1:57.16
  5. Bella Sims 1:57.53
  6. Brooke Forde 1:57.61
  7. Catie Deloof 1:57.86
  8. Leah Smith 1:58.13

2 comments

  1. Amy Murry

    So excited for these women!

  2. avatar
    Robert

    Does anyone else think that she is really not rested for this meet and that is intentional? And they are purposefully not telling us so?