This Stuff Just Doesn’t Happen in January: Katie Ledecky and Americans Open 2015 on Fire in Austin

Katie Ledecky

By David Rieder

DURHAM − World records do not fall very often. And when they do, it’s usually in the summer with the likes of Katie Ledecky, in July and August.

January? Not so much.

In fact, a long course world record hasn’t fallen in the inaugural month of the year since 1991, when FINA held the World Championships in Perth in during the Australian summer. No one had repeated that feat in 24 years, but Katie Ledecky came close on Saturday with a monstrous 800 free at the Arena Pro Swim Series in Austin.

Ledecky has been on a hot streak since lowering her own world records in the 800 and 1500 free at a meet at The Woodlands in Texas this past June. Her return to the Lone Star State proved nearly as historic, and it wasn’t in the 800, an event in which she swam under world record pace through 600 meters. She swept the 100, 200, 400, and 800 free events in Austin, setting a best time in the 100 free on the way. She has made near-record swims seem routine − even disappointing − but compare her swims to this same meet last year.

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Whoa. Ledecky’s (relatively) quiet meet in Austin last year didn’t prevent an historic summer, but she is already swimming close to her best swims at the very beginning of this season. That just doesn’t happen in January.

Her near-world record in the 800 free was the second-fastest performance ever, while only Federica Pellegrini has surpassed that time in the 400, both times with the aid of high-tech polyurethane suits. Ledecky’s 200 free from Austin would have ranked in the world top-ten last year (Ledecky herself ranked second).

Meanwhile, that 100 free could be a game-changer, as Ledecky will now be in the conversation to swim on the U.S. 400 free relay at the World Championships this summer. She will have to post a faster time before the U.S. team departs for Russia this summer, so Ledecky’s pursuit of sprint success will be one interesting storyline to keep an eye on. Regardless, if her early form is any indication, the undisputed best swimmer in the world will be tough to beat in the 200, 400, and 800 this year in Kazan.

*No one else was chasing world records in Austin, but the meet featured a handful of exceptionally strong times for the traditionally-sluggish month of January. World and Olympic champion Matt Grevers uncorked a 53.27 in the 100 back, just a half second slower than his best time from last year, a 52.75 from U.S. Nationals. But he’s already a step ahead of his 53.72 from the same meet last year as he goes for a World title defense.

*Meanwhile, distance ace Connor Jaeger got his year off to a solid start with a 3:47.58 win in the 400 free. That doesn’t sound incredible, but it actually far surpasses the 3:49.42 Jaeger swam in a disappointing third-place finish in the event at Nationals last summer. He ended up rebounding to finish third at Pan Pacs in 3:45.31, and he has also swum under 3:45 in winning bronze in the event at the 2013 Worlds. If he can keep swimming 3:47s all season, he will have a shot at another medal in the event at Worlds this summer.

*Katinka Hosszu races a lot and does not lose much. But this weekend, two Americans stepped up their game to take down the Hungarian Iron Lady in an event in which she won the World Championship in 2013. Elizabeth Beisel won the 400 IM in 4:36.71, followed by Caitlin Leverenz (4:38.35) and then Hosszu (4:39.93). That doesn’t beat Beisel’s in-season best of 4:33.52 from last year’s Santa Clara Grand Prix, but since she began training at Florida, that is her only other sub-4:40 performance outside of a championship meet.

Leverenz, meanwhile, looks like she’s back after a disappointing 2014 where she finished seventh at Nationals in 4:43.23. She finished second to Hosszu in the 200 IM in Austin, but her 2:11.84 is just over a second back of her top time from last year, a 2:10.67. She demolished her times from last year’s meet in Austin, 2:13.44 and 4:41.56. Bound for the Pan American Games this summer, Leverenz could be on the way returning to the elite class of IMers.

*Not too long ago, the 200 fly was one of the weakest events for the American women. Only four years ago, they were shut out of the event’s final at the World Championships. The emergence of Cammile Adams helped remedy the situation, culminating with her win in the event at the 2014 Pan Pacs. Adams put up a solid 2:09.25 in the 200 fly, not far back of her 2:06.61 from her championship swim at Pan Pacs. But Adams had to settle for third this time as two youngsters each touched ahead of her.

No one can be too surprised to see Katie McLaughlin, 17, touching in 2:09.12 after her bronze medal in the event at Pan Pacs, but her co-champion, Cassidy Bayer, might be less familiar to casual swim fans. The 15 year old has only been faster once, when she won silver in the event at Junior Pan Pacs in 2:09.08. Three 2:09s appears highly promising for the U.S., but with one of the headliners so young, there could be a breakout coming.

*Canadian Dominique Bouchard earned wins in both backstroke events this weekend, touching out one American Olympic medalist in each event. She beat Beisel in the 200 back and Natalie Coughlin in the 100. That’s right, Natalie Coughlin just swam her first 100 back in almost three years. She last swam the event at the 2012 Olympic Trials, finishing third behind Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma.

Coughlin swam just one event, the 400 free relay, at the London Olympics, and since then, she has focused exclusively on sprint free after moving across Spieker Pool to train with the Cal men’s team and coach Dave Durden. What does her return to backstroke mean for her future? Who knows for sure, but no one can deny it’s exciting to see Coughlin back in an event she redefined. And for the record, her 1:00.70 from Austin is faster than the 1:00.83 she swam at the 2012 Santa Clara Grand Prix, her final in-season meet before the 2012 Trials.