Summer McIntosh Beats Katie Ledecky in 800 Freestyle; Ledecky’s First Loss in Event in 13 Years

Summer Mcintosh of Canada prepares to compete in the Women's Freestyle 200m Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 25th, 2023.
Summer McIntosh -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Summer McIntosh Beats Katie Ledecky Head-to-Head in 800 Freestyle, Becomes Second-Fastest Performer Ever

In an streak of dominance unprecedented in swimming history, Katie Ledecky did not lose an 800 freestyle final for more than 13 years. Ledecky has won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the event, making her one of only three women to ever do so in any event, and her six consecutive world titles are the most by any swimmer ever.

But while contesting the race Thursday evening at a Sectionals meet in Orlando, Ledecky could not keep pace with 17-year-old Canadian phenom Summer McIntosh, who built a gap of almost seven seconds on the 26-year-old American while becoming the second-fastest performer in history. Ledecky built a slight early lead, but McIntosh pulled even on the fifth of 16 laps and then ahead for good by the 300-meter mark before pouring it on.

McIntosh clocked a time of 8:11.39, which becomes the 17th-fastest performance in history behind 16 of Ledecky’s times, including her legendary 2016 world record of 8:04.79. Previously, Ledecky owned all of the top-25 swims in history, and no other woman had ever broken 8:13.

Previously medal-winning swims by China’s Li Bingjie (8:13.31) and Australia’s Ariarne Titmus (8:13.59) at last year’s World Championships were as quick as any non-Ledecky swimmer had ever gone. Notably, McIntosh’s swim knocks Janet Evans, the world-record holder for 19 years at 8:16.22, out of the all-time top-10 performers in history. McIntosh also beat the Commonwealth record previously held by Titmus while smashing the Canadian record of 8:20.02 that Brittany MacLean swam in 2010.

In recent years, McIntosh has grown into one of the world’s best swimmers, winning world titles in the 200 butterfly and 400 IM at each of the last two World Championships. In 2023, she set the first world records of her career, lowering the marks in the 400 free (later broken by Titmus) and 400 IM at Canada’s World Championships selection meet. McIntosh ended up winning four medals at the 2023 Worlds; after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the 400 free on day one, McIntosh rebounded to win bronze in the fastest 200 free final ever before her two gold medals and anchoring the Canadian women’s 400 medley relay team to bronze.

At this point in her career, McIntosh has become best known for her abilities in the mid-distance freestyle, IM and 200 fly, but when she first emerged internationally as a 14-year-old at the Tokyo Olympics, she was exclusively a freestyler. After placing fourth in the 400 free, McIntosh was ninth in the 200 free and 11th in the 800-meter race, finishing four-and-a-half seconds outside of the top-eight.

As her event schedule diversified, the 800 free dropped out of her lineup, but this Sectionals meet only a two-hour drive from her training base in Sarasota, Fla., provided a chance to race the event as a training swim. However, the resulting performance not only ended an incredible winning streak but also forced McIntosh to seriously consider the possibility of racing the 800 free at this summer’s Paris Olympics.

However, if McIntosh does choose to add a fifth individual event to her lineup (assuming she races the 200 and 400 free plus 200 fly and 400 IM), she will likely have to opt for either the 200 IM or 800 free, with both events scheduled to take place on the eighth evening of finals in Paris. She is one of only four women in history to ever break 2:07 in the 200 IM, so she would likely head to the Games as a slight gold-medal favorite in that event as well, leaving McIntosh and coach Brent Arckey with a tough decision in the coming months.

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