U.S. Nationals: Katie Ledecky Blisters 1:54.50 in 200 Free; Erin Gemmell Crushes Best Time With 1:56.14 for Second

Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. Nationals: Katie Ledecky Blisters 1:54.50 in 200 Free; Erin Gemmell Crushes Best Time With 1:56.14 for Second

Katie Ledecky issued a reminder that she is one of the best 200 freestylers in the world. Last year, she ended up fifth in the event at the Tokyo Olympics, and she opted out of swimming the event at this year’s World Championships, but the four-lap event was on her schedule for U.S. Nationals before she turns her attention to racing some off-events, with individual medley events and the 200 butterfly to come. Ledecky quickly proved she was the class of the field in the 200 free, moving ahead of Erin Gemmell on the second length and opening up a lead of a second-and-a-half.

Ledecky finished in 1:54.50, improving her previous season-best time of 1:54.66 set in February. Ledecky ranks as the second-fastest swimmer in the world this year behind Olympic champion Ariarne Titmus, and the time would have been good enough to win gold at the World Championships (in Titmus’ absence) by more than four tenths. Ledecky is the fourth-fastest swimmer in history in the event behind Federica Pellegrini, Titmus and Allison Schmitt, and her best time in the event is 1:53.73, recorded on the way to Olympic gold in 2016, but the effort at Nationals was the fourth-fastest of her career.

“I didn’t feel very sharp this morning so just wanted to try and turn it around, and I went a lot faster than I expected after this morning, so I’m really pleased with how that went,” Ledecky said.

Of course, Ledecky’s excellence is nothing unusual. Her first 200 free national title was back in 2014 (at the same pool in Irvine, Calif.), and she has not lost to an American swimmer since. The big development in Wednesday evening’s final was Gemmell crushing her best time as she claimed the runnerup spot. The 17-year-old Gemmell, the daughter of Ledecky’s longtime coach Bruce Gemmell, swam her best time by three tenths in prelims (1:57.12) before dropping to 1:56.14 in the final.

Gemmell’s swim made her the 10th-fastest swimmer in the world this year and the second-fastest American in 2022 behind Ledecky. The mark was faster than China’s Tang Muhan swam to claim bronze in the 200 free final at Worlds. Previously, Gemmell narrowly missed qualifying for the the World Championships team as a relay swimmer when she finished seventh in the 200 free at U.S. International Team Trials in April.

Heading into those World Championships, the Americans were not considered favorites in the 800 free relay after no swimmer besides Ledecky broke 1:57 at Trials, and Australia, Canada and China were each set up with strong squads heading to Budapest. But the Americans then pulled off an upset and claimed gold as Ledecky posted the third-fastest split in history to put the Americans into the lead on the third leg and Bella Sims swam more than a second quicker than ever before as the anchor swimmer to give the Americans their first global title in the event since 2017.

Now, Gemmell emerging onto the scene will give the Americans another strong option and possibly a swimmer to be depended upon as soon as the summer of 2023, before Gemmell begins her freshman year at the University of Texas. Before that, however, Gemmell will race next month at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Maui, and she could certainly match or surpass that effort in likely her final meet as a member of the U.S. junior team.

In the battle for places behind Ledecky and Gemmell, Cavalier Aquatics’ Claire Tuggle swam a strong time of 1:58.34, her best time by a half-second, as she placed third, while Cavan Gormsen dropped nine tenths as she finished fourth (1:58.87).