NCAA Swimming Flashback: Katie Ledecky and Mallory Comerford Tie in Epic 200 Freestyle

Katie Ledecky & Mallory Comerford after tying for the NCAA title in the 200 freestyle in 2017 -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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NCAA Swimming Flashback: Katie Ledecky and Mallory Comerford Tie in Epic 200 Freestyle

During Katie Ledecky’s two-year college career at Stanford, she was utterly untouchable in the 500 and 1650-yard freestyle races. During her freshman campaign, she broke her own American record in the 500 free on her way to winning the national title, swimming a time of 4:24.06. Leah Smith finished second in 4:28.90, almost five seconds behind — while swimming a time faster than any other woman in history. Her two NCAA titles in the 1650 were by margins of 21 seconds in 2017 and then almost 29 seconds in 2018.

But she would be vulnerable in whatever she chose as her third event, which came down to a decision between the 400 IM and 200 free. At the 2017 Pac-12 Championships, Ledecky attempted the double. First, she clipped the American record in the 400 IM with a 3:57.68, and then a half hour later, she came from behind to edge out teammate Simone Manuel, 1:40.37 to 1:40.50, in a swim that made the duo the second and third-fastest swimmers in history, respectively.

For her freshman year, Ledecky picked the 200 free. Heading into the national meet in Indianapolis, Ledecky was the favorite, but it would be a loaded field with Manuel, 800 free relay gold medalist Smith and a pair of emerging sophomores, Louisville’s Mallory Comerford, the surprising second-place finisher in the event a year earlier, and Michigan’s Siobhan Haughey. Both of these swimmers had lowered more than a second off their lifetime bests in capturing their respective conference titles a month earlier.

Today, Haughey is the most successful 200-meter freestyler in that bunch, as she recently captured Olympic silver and then the short course world title in the event, lowering the short course world title in the process. But in 2017, it was Comerford who took the step forward to swim on the level of the established big guns in what became the one of the signature moments of her career.

In the 200 free final, Manuel claimed the top seed, while Ledecky would swim in lane five and Comerford in lane six. It was no surprise to see sprint star Manuel going out fast and leading by a half-second after the first 50 yards, and she maintained that lead over Ledecky throughout the middle 100. Then, on the third 50, Comerford made her move by splitting more than four tenths faster than anyone else in the field. And as Ledecky ran down Manuel on the race’s seven lengths, Comerford went right with her.

As the three swimmers turned for home, they were just about dead-even. Ledecky tried to surge, but Comerford was also surging. Stroke-for-stroke as they went into the finish, Ledecky touched in 1:40.36 — and so did Comerford. Manuel placed third in 1:40.70, and Haughey took fourth in 1:41.21, chopping more than a second off her lifetime best.


Mallory Comerford at the 2017 NCAA Championships — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It was a good swim for Ledecky, but she was already a five-time Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder in three events at that point. This was a race she was expected to win or at least come close to winning. Comerford? Her stock was rising fast, but few expected she would reach Ledecky and Manuel levels. It was obvious how much the performance meant to the Louisville program as Comerford’s fellow Cardinals, several of them in tears, gathered at poolside to embrace her as she climbed out of the water.

“It was just kind of unreal,” Comerford said that moment.

The next day, Comerford placed third in the 100 free to conclude her NCAAs, and she would not have to wait long for her next career breakthrough. At U.S. Nationals three months later in the same Indianapolis pool, she beat Manuel in the 100-meter free to book a spot on the World Championships team, swimming under 53 seconds for the first time.

At the World Championships in Budapest, Comerford broke Manuel’s American record leading off the U.S. women’s 400 freestyle relay, and the Americans narrowly held off Australia for gold. Comerford ended up with five relay golds from that meet, plus a fourth-place finish in the individual 100 free. Her efforts from that year helped her earn USA Swimming’s Breakout Performer of the Year award at Golden Goggles.

Comerford ended up capturing individual national titles in the 200 free during her last two collegiate seasons, and her 2018 winning time of 1:39.80 made her just the second woman to ever crack 1:40. She also won the 100 free title in 2019. She went on to be a consistent international performer for the U.S. in 2018 and 2019, although she did struggle in 2021 as she did not qualify for a final at Olympic Trials.

The Kalamazoo, Mich., native would eventually go on to bigger accomplishments on the international scene, but that 2017 NCAA title that she shared with Ledecky represents the moment when Comerford fully arrived on swimming’s elite scene.