U.S. Nationals: Claire Weinstein Stuns Katie Ledecky in 200 Freestyle National Final

Claire Weinstein -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. Nationals: Claire Weinstein Stuns Katie Ledecky in 200 Freestyle National Final

In 2021, Claire Weinstein watched as the Sandpipers of Nevada placed three swimmers onto the U.S. Olympic team, with Bella SimsKatie Grimes and Erica Sullivan all qualifying. She chose to move cross-country from Westchester County, New York, to Las Vegas, where she joined forces with Ron Aitken’s powerhouse club group.

Within less than one year of joining the Sandpipers, Weinstein was a surprise qualifier for the U.S. World Championships team, finishing second behind superstar Katie Ledecky at the U.S. International Team Trials. As she made her international debut six weeks later in Budapest, Weinstein barely missed making the individual 200 free final, but she provided a strong leadoff leg on American women’s 800 free relay that went on to earn gold.

And one year further down the line, the 16-year-old Weinstein was ready to pull off a stunner at U.S. Nationals. Katie Ledecky, the seven-time Olympic gold medalist and one of the most dominant female swimmers ever, had not been beaten by a fellow American in a freestyle race 200 meters or longer in a decade, since the 2013 edition of U.S. Nationals also held in Indianapolis. But with scintillating closing splits, including a 29.35 on the last length, Weinstein got ahead of Ledecky at the finish.

Weinstein touched in 1:55.26, two hundredths ahead of Ledecky. Weinstein swam one second quicker than her best time, a 1:56.27 from prelims that was already a half-second quicker than she had ever been before, to earn her first national title. Ledecky finished second in 1:55.28.

Returning to a selection meet after first qualifying for Worlds last year, Weinstein admitted that she felt pressure in the morning to ensure she got a spot in the A-final, where the majority of swimmers would earn relay spots for Worlds, but she was able to relax at night, contributing to her career-best effort.

“I definitely had more nerves in the morning because I knew that was probably going to be the deciding factor if I made the team or not. Everybody was swimming fast in the morning, so the hardest part was going to get into the A-final. It would probably be harder to get into the A-final than to make the team, so I just wanted to do that. In the morning, I was pretty nervous, but at night, I was pretty calm. I knew I could do it. I convinced myself that I could have a good race,” Weinstein said.

“I honestly wasn’t even chasing (Ledecky) down. I was breathing to Bella’s side, and my race plan is always blast the last 50, so that’s what I did. I didn’t know I was catching up with her or anything.”

As the teenager knocked off the all-time great to win the title, two other teenagers claimed their spots on the World Championships team behind them. Sims, 18, led for the first 100 meters before Ledecky and Weinstein took over on the back half, and she held on to finish third in 1:56.08, also a best time by a second.

Fourth went to 18-year-old Erin Gemmell in 1:56.23, just off her personal best of 1:56.14 but good enough to claim a spot at Worlds after she finished one spot away last year. Gemmell is the daughter of Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky’s coach during her high school years, and she shared a hug with Ledecky after getting onto a major international team for the first time.

The top four swimmers automatically qualify to swim the 800 free relay at the World Championships, and the fifth and sixth-place swimmers will likely qualify for the team as well. Those spots went to Alex Shackell, a 16-year-old from the Carmel Swim Club near Indianapolis, and veteran Leah Smith.

Shackell previously raced the 200 fly and swam in second place for most of the race before fading to fifth at the end. But she returned for the 200 free Wednesday morning and dropped 3.5 seconds in prelims to qualify for the A-final. She took another second off at night as she touched in 1:56.70 to qualify for a senior-level international team for the first time.

Smith, meanwhile, will be making an appearance at a fifth consecutive World Championships after she finished in 1:56.91. She has been part of the American women’s 800 free relay at all four previous meets, and she and Ledecky have contributed to gold or silver medals on all four occasions. That duo will provide some major experience to a teenage group that is relatively raw but dripping with potential.

Entering the championship heat, the Sandpipers were already riding high after the B-final after Katie Grimes posted her best swim of the meet so far with a 1:57.55 to win the heat by nine tenths. Grimes finished a disappointing fifth in Tuesday’s 800 free, but she swam a best time here to set herself up for Thursday’s 400 IM, where she will be the strong favorite.

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