U.S. Nationals: Katie Ledecky Surges Ahead of Leah Smith for 400 IM Victory, Swims Personal-Best Time (VIDEO)

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Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. Nationals: Katie Ledecky Surges Ahead of Leah Smith for 400 IM Victory, Swims Personal-Best Time

Katie Ledecky came to U.S. Nationals with hopes of swimming a best time. Ledecky’s standard in her signature events is ridiculously high, as she is the world-record holder in the 800 and 1500 freestyle, the second-fastest swimmer in history in the 400 free and fourth all-time in the 200 free. But with Ledecky taking on a handful of off-events this week, she was understandably excited about the opportunity to swim faster than ever before.

And in the 400 IM final, Ledecky swam two seconds better than ever before as she overtook Leah Smith for the win as she turned on the jets on the freestyle leg.

Ledecky was just behind butterfly specialist Lindsay Looney after the first leg, and she took over the lead halfway through backstroke, but Smith has caught up by the halfway point. Smith pulled ahead on the breaststroke leg, leaving Ledecky about a second behind heading into the freestyle, but Ledecky has won seven Olympic gold medals in freestyle events. Even though Smith is also primarily a freestyler, with her bronze medal in the 400 free at last month’s World Championships marking the third occasion in her career when she has reached the podium in that event at a global-level meet, she was no match for Ledecky, whose freestyle split (1:00.26) was more than a second-and-a-half faster than Katinka Hosszu split when she set the current world record in the event.

Ledecky touched in 4:35.77, about nine tenths ahead of Smith’s 4:36.66 and two seconds ahead of her previous best time, a 4:37.93 set at the Atlanta Classic in May 2016. Ledecky’s time was the fourth-fastest in the world this year behind only Canada’s Summer McIntosh, Australia’s Kaylee McKeown and American Katie Grimes. Ledecky’s time would have been quick enough to earn bronze in the event at the World Championships.

“It was fun, as a 400 IM can be,” Ledecky said after the race. “I knew Leah was going to be really tough tonight, and I knew that if I could stay with her, we’d both have a good time. I just tried to stick with it. Each stroke felt really good. I felt like I swam to my potential tonight.”

When Smith turned for the final two lengths, she saw Ledecky and quickly realized that her rival was too close for comfort.

“In March, we swam at Westmont, and she was running me down on freestyle,” Smith said. “I got in there and raced, and I’m happy with that time after not focusing on the 400 IM as much this summer. I kind of just got back from Worlds and threw in some more IM and stroke, so that was cool. I knew when I flipped after breaststroke that it was going to be a good race. I was like, ‘I should have built more of a lead.’”

Asked in an interview with NBC Sports if she would consider adding the 400 IM to her slate for future international competition, Ledecky responded, “I don’t think so,” and the crowd in Irvine, Calif., responded with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot of meters of racing I would like to do at the big meets, so I think the 400 IM is a little bit of a stretch.”

All week in Irvine, Ledecky has looked far more relaxed than normal at a championship-level competition, and that has produced some strong swims. In her previous events, she won the 800 free in a time no other swimmer has ever achieved, and her 200 free win Wednesday evening brought the fourth-fastest performance of her career and the second-fastest time in the world. After this IM win, Ledecky is done with racing traditional events for the week, but she plans to time-trial the 200 butterfly and 200 IM over the last two days of the meet.

“There’s no pressure,” Ledecky said. “At the end of Worlds, Coach (Anthony) Nesty was like, ‘Alright, just got to go to Nationals. There’s no pressure. Just have fun.’ Really even my freestyle events this week, I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s fun to just get up and see what I can do in some events I haven’t done in a while.”

In a tight battle for third place, Ohio State’s Felicia Pasadyn held off a charging Looney on the freestyle leg by just one hundredth, 4:42.79 to 4:42.80. Ella Nelson of Nashville Aquatic Club and the University of Virginia ended up fifth in 4:43.84.

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