World Championships: Katie Ledecky, Bella Sims Propel U.S. Women to Upset Gold in 800 Free Relay

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Katie Ledecky, Leah Smith, Claire Weinstein & Bella Sims (left to right) -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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World Championships: Katie Ledecky, Bella Sims Propel U.S. Women to Upset Gold in 800 Free Relay

Four countries were set to battle for gold in the women’s 800 freestyle relay at the World Championships. There was a Chinese squad that had blasted to a stunning gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and among the returnees were 200 freestyle world champion Yang Junxuan and bronze medalist Tang Muhan. Australia was missing Ariarne Titmus and Emma McKeon, but they still had Mollie O’Callaghan, the silver medalist in Budapest in the 200 free, plus a veteran group led by Madison Wilson. A balanced Canadian squad was leading off with 15-year-old star Summer McIntosh, who was less than two hours removed from winning her first world title in the 200 butterfly, and she would be followed by veterans Kayla SanchezTaylor Ruck and Penny Oleksiak.

Then there was the United States, with Katie Ledecky the only swimmer returning from a silver-medal effort at the Tokyo Olympics. At the U.S. International Team Trials in April, Ledecky was the only swimmer to swim under 1:57 in the 200 free, and the Americans looked in danger of missing the medal podium entirely at these World Championships. But even back in April, Ledecky believed the U.S. would put together a worthy group in Budapest.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been on [the 800 free relay] now, eight or nine times maybe. It’s a different group each time, and I think we always find a way. We always find a way to be in the mix,” Ledecky said. “I think we were counted out a lot, and we were really happy with our performance, getting under the old world record, getting silver and being that close to the gold. I knew that going into tonight that no matter who’s going to be on that relay, no matter who makes those spots, they’re going to step up and swim well. I have full confidence in the squad.”

Now, the Americans are world champions again with an unlikely group standing atop the podium after a dominant performance in the World Championships final. The U.S. went with a group of Claire WeinsteinLeah Smith, Ledecky and Bella Sims. Ledecky has been one of the best 200 freestylers in the world for the better part of a decade, with a 2015 world title and 2016 Olympic gold on her ledger, while Smith was part of the American relay every year from 2013 to 2019 before she missed the Tokyo Olympics.

Weinstein and Sims, on the other hand, are teenagers, and they train together with the Sandpipers of Nevada in Las Vegas. Sims, 17, qualified for the Olympics last year and won a silver medal as an 800 free relay alternate, and she earned a spot on the finals group here after crushing her lifetime best with a 1:55.91 split in prelims. The 15-year-old Weinstein was the surprise second-place finisher in the 200 free at Trials, and she was a semifinalist in the individual 200 free earlier in the meet.

Weinstein did her job on the leadoff leg as she swam a time of 1:56.71, her best time by two tenths, and Smith went 1:56.47 on the second leg. The U.S. was third at that point behind Canada and Australia, but then Ledecky entered the water and split 1:53.67, the third-quickest split in history, to open up a lead of more than a second.

Still, both Australia and Canada were in striking distance with 200 meters to go, and the Americans chose to anchor with Sims despite her inexperience on that stage. But the teenager posted a stunning 1:54.60 split, which is more than 2.5 seconds faster than her flat-start best time, and the Americans finished in 7:41.45. That was 2.41 seconds ahead of second-place Australia, and the mark broke the World Championships record of 7:42.08 established by Australia in 2019. Only the top three teams from the Tokyo Olympics (China, USA and Australia) have ever recorded quicker relays.

“It’s awesome,” Ledecky told NBC Sports after the race. “It’s so easy to get up for these relays, to not think and go. I had so much trust in these three. I think we’re always counted out, and we always deliver, so I’m so proud of this group.”

Moreover for Ledecky, the medal was her 18th World Championship gold, which ties Ryan Lochte for second-most in history, with only Michael Phelps owning more (26). Ledecky’s 21st Worlds medal broke a tie with Natalie Coughlin for most World Championship medals by a female.

Australia’s team of Wilson, Leah NealeKiah Melverton and O’Callaghan claimed silver in 7:43.86, with Neale providing the fastest split at 1:55.27, while Canada’s McIntosh, Sanchez, Ruck and Oleksiak took bronze in 7:44.78. McIntosh led off for Canada in 1:54.79, breaking O’Callaghan’s world junior record in the 200 free and swimming faster than the winning time in the individual 200 free earlier in the meet.

Despite entering as the Olympic champions, China was never in the hunt after Tang led off in 1:58.10, more than a second-and-a-half behind her performance in the individual 200 free. Yang anchored in 1:54.18, but it was only enough for China to finish fourth (7:45.72).

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John
5 days ago

SWIMMERS! Please remember that no how much slower than your PB you are, no matter how much slower you were than a few months ago, no matter how much slower than heats or semis you are, commentator Rebecca ‘Yeah no’ Adington will say ‘he /she will be pleased with that.’ If you swim faster than someone in 1979 it is ‘phenomenal.’ Also, quoth she, ‘I don’t think people realise racing improves your fitness.’ If you have swum in tons of international competitions before, this is still ‘experience.’ Lilly King ‘will be a little bit disappointed to finish 4th in the 100m’ whilst Hosszu ‘will be ‘pleased’ with her 200 IM 7th.
Great swimmer in her day, but commentating? Get her off.

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Chiperoo
4 days ago

This race gave me chills. Ledecky’s split was awesome and seemed to really fire up Sims, who came through BIG time. This is what athletics is all about. How inspirational.

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