U.S. International Team Trials: Katie Ledecky Swims Sixth-Fastest 800 Free in History; Leah Smith Returns to Worlds Team (VIDEO)

Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. International Team Trials: Katie Ledecky Swims Sixth-Fastest 800 Free in History; Leah Smith Returns to Worlds Team

It’s been a decade since Katie Ledecky emerged on the global scene, a gold medal secured in the 800-meter freestyle at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. During the ensuing years, Ledecky has made the distance-freestyle events her personal domain, the opposition unable to match the American superstar over 800 and 1500 meters.

So the dominance that Ledecky showed Tuesday night was to be expected. What was surprising was watching Ledecky challenge her world-record pace in the 800 free for the first time in years.

As the USA Swimming International Team Trials opened at the Greensboro Aquatic Center, Ledecky was under her amazing pace from the 2016 Olympics for the first half of this race, and while she slowed down the stretch, she finished in 8:09.27, the sixth-fastest mark in history behind five of her own previous efforts. However, this is the fastest time Ledecky has posted since 2018, and she was three seconds quicker than the 8:12.57 that she swam to win her third straight Olympic gold medal in the event last year.

“I’m really happy with that. I felt like coming in that I could possibly go under 8:10, so to see that on the scoreboard is really exciting. It’s the fastest I’ve been in a couple years, so I can’t complain,” Ledecky said. “I know what I’m capable of, and I know that I have that in me. Just to put that together and see that was a lot of fun.”

Ledecky booked an invitation to this summer’s World Championships in Budapest when she prevailed in the 800 freestyle, and she set herself up for a run at a fifth consecutive world title in the event, four championships already claimed from 2013-2019. No woman has ever won five consecutive world titles in a single event.

In a mild upset, the second spot on the World Championships team went to veteran Leah Smith. The 27-year-old Smith surprisingly missed the Olympic team last year, but she has been swimming very well in 2021 since moving her training to Austin, Texas, where she trains with the Longhorn women under coaches Carol Capitani and Mitch Dalton. Smith finished second here in 8:17.52, not far off her best time of 8:16.33.

Before last year, Smith had been a mainstay on international rosters since she grabbed bronze in the 400 free at the 2016 Olympics. She has won international honors in the 400-meter event on multiple occasions, and she earned bronze in the 800 free at the 2017 World Championships.

Smith’s return to the Worlds team denied a duo of rising stars from Sandpipers of Nevada. Bella Sims, who was an Olympic silver medalist in the 800 free relay in 2021, placed third in 8:22.36, while teammate Katie Grimes ended up fourth in 8:22.73. Grimes, 16, placed fourth in the 800 free at the Olympics, but she was five seconds off her lifetime best here. Grimes is already qualified for Budapest in the 10k open water event, and she will be favored for a top-two finish in the 1500 free later in the week. Another teenager representing the Sandpipers, Claire Weinstein, finished fifth in 8:29.34.

At the Tokyo Games, Ledecky finished off the podium in the 200 freestyle and took silver to Australian ace Ariarne Titmus in the 400 freestyle. Although she has competition in the shorter events, Ledecky remains untouchable in the sport’s longest disciplines. In the history of the 800 freestyle, the closest anyone has come to Ledecky’s world record of 8:04.79 is nine seconds, that being the 8:13.83 of Titmus for Olympic silver last year.

Following Tokyo, Ledecky took a well-deserved break from the unyielding training she had logged for years. Upon returning, Ledecky was in a new environment, having shifted her base to the University of Florida and the coaching of Anthony Nesty. The training situation in Gainesville appears to be working brilliantly.

Of her focus with Nesty coming into this Trials meet, Ledecky said, “We talk a lot about improvement, and that’s the goal always. Of course, improvement looks a little different for me than some other people given that my times are really hard to improve.”

As Ledecky turns her attention to the 200 freestyle Wednesday and then the 400 and 1500 free later in the week, she is optimistic that the stellar 800-meter effort will propel her toward similarly-impressive efforts to come. “I feel like if you can do that, usually when I have a good first swim, I can kind of get into a rhythm, have that confidence, have that little boost,” she said. “I’m excited.”


Here are all the links you need for coverage of the USA Swimming International Team Trials:

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1 year ago

Her split time at the half way point is equal to the third fastest 400 in the world so far this year.

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