With Bright Future, No Reason for Ledecky to Look Back

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By John Lohn

OMAHA, Nebraska, June 27. NO one wants to finish in third place at the Olympic Trials. Really, it’s no better than last place, and it’s torturous for the thoughts it elicits. What if I handled that last turn better? What if I took the race out a little harder? What if I conserved a little more energy during the morning session?

At a competition which selects just the top two finishers in each event for Olympic action, it’s reasonable for a third-place performer to question what unfolded. It’s also easy for an athlete to hurt, to feel the pain of missing out on a goal which only a miniscule number of athletes ever get to realize. Sometimes, the sting will last a while.

On Tuesday night, Katie Ledecky experienced the heartache associated with a bronze-medal showing at the Olympic Trials. Despite delivering a time of 4:05.00, which broke the 24-year-old National Age Group (15-16) record of the legendary Janet Evans, Ledecky finished behind Allison Schmitt and Chloe Sutton. At least for a moment, her Olympic aspirations were put on hold.

Heading into the Olympic Trials, the 15-year-old from the Curl-Burke Swim Club was tabbed as one of the future stars of American swimming. In a sport which routinely produces teenage standouts on the female side, Ledecky is the latest to fit that role. Over the past few months, her times have regularly dropped — and by sizable margins — proof that she is far from reaching her peak.

As Day Three of the Trials got under way at the CenturyLink Center with the preliminaries of the 200 freestyle, Ledecky had the opportunity to show her resilient side. She was back on the blocks, a little more than 12 hours after her disappointment. To her credit, she bounced back in a big way, easily advancing to the semifinals behind a clocking of 1:59.88. There was no sign of woe from Ledecky, a demonstration of maturity beyond her years.

Ledecky, of course, is one of hundreds of athletes who — through the years — have placed third at Trials. Therefore, plenty of reference points exist for how to handle the difficulty of the situation. Look at Brendan Hansen. As an 18-year-old at the 2000 Olympic Trials, he placed third in both the 100 breaststroke and 200 breaststroke. Four years later, he set a pair of world records to land berths to Athens.

Kristy Kowal is another feel-good example of rebounding from adversity. Third in the 100 breaststroke at the 1996 Olympic Trials, Kowal repeated that result in the 100 breast at the 2000 Trials. However, she remained positive and determined and ultimately earned a bid to the Sydney Games in the 200 breast, where she grabbed the silver medal.

“I remember after getting third place in 2000 in the 100 breast by .01 and knowing I had another shot in the 200 breast, I had to try and keep myself from getting over-emotional which is easier said than done,” Kowal said. “It’s such a roller coaster of emotions, sadness, anger, disappointment. I was lucky my coaches and teammates were an incredible support system. You have two choices really: Let the disappointment take over and give up, or let yourself take the night to regroup, be sad and then fight for the chance to get on that team. Four years of training is a lot of work to just throw away and not look to the next race. It is what it is and you can’t change the result of the race behind you, but you can absolutely control what is going to happen in the next race. Trust that the work you put in the last four years is going to carry you through, and that no one else in that next event is going to be as determined as you to redeem yourself after getting that third place.”

While Ledecky has a chance to secure one of the six Olympic slots available in the 200 free (two individual and four relay), her best chance for a trip to London sits with the 800 freestyle. Even before her splendid showing in the 400 free, Ledecky was tabbed as a better bet for the longest event on the women’s program. That event is scheduled over two days, with preliminaries on Saturday and the final on Sunday night.

Let’s hope her performance in the 400 free is used as a boom to her confidence level, and not seen as a disappointment.

Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn