IRVINE, Calif. — A college coach recently visited Nation’s Capital Swim Club and walked away, shaking his head over Katie Ledecky practicing with men’s swimmers.
“She just chases those boys up and down the pool, doesn’t she?” the coach told Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell.
“I like to call her quiet like an assassin,” Gemmell says.
Ledecky smiled and joked with Missy Franklin before heading out for their anticipated showdown in the 200m freestyle at the U.S. Swimming Championships on Thursday night.
When they reached their side-by-side lanes, Franklin started dancing to a Backstreet Boys song playing on the outdoor pool’s PA system (the band formed two years before Franklin’s birth and four years before Ledecky’s).
Ledecky turned less expressive during introductions, focusing on the 50m of water ahead.
The assassin then flung off the starting block and chased Franklin down the pool. She quickly caught the four-time Olympic champion, passed Franklin and distanced herself to win by 1.24 seconds.
Ledecky is a rising high school senior best known as the world-record holder in the 800m and 1500m frees and the American record holder in the 400m free. She often wins races in those distances by several body lengths.
Ledecky, who came out of nowhere in 2012 to win Olympic 800m gold, had never owned the 200m free until Thursday. Not enough room for the distance swimmer to catch the field.
But she had been chasing the best Americans in the event since finishing ninth at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
And now she’s the U.S. champion, adding to her arsenal in dominating fashion at Woollett Aquatics Center.
Ledecky, the reigning Female World Swimmer of the Year, clocked a personal best 1 minute, 55.16 seconds. Franklin, the 2012 Female World Swimmer of the Year, took second in 1:56.4.
Ledecky was two seconds faster than Franklin in separate morning preliminary heats. In this distance, she’s known as a faster swimmer in the second half of the race compared to the field.
So when she touched the first 50m wall just .11 behind Franklin in the final, it was clear Ledecky was in great position to knock off the reigning World champion in the event.
She passed Franklin and led by one tenth at 100m, then by four tenths at 150m. Finally, Ledecky, who repairs bikes for charity in her spare time, dropped Franklin for good by swimming three-quarters of a second faster on the final 50m.
“I did a really good job of increasing my tempo throughout the race,” Ledecky said. “My arms didn’t really die.”
The U.S. Swimming Championships are a qualifying meet for the biggest international competition of the year, the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, in two weeks.
Ledecky and Franklin had already qualified for the Pan Pacs team via their wins in the 800m free and the 100m free, respectively, on Wednesday. They are open to swim any events they want at Pan Pacs.
The 200m free is the only individual event where Ledecky and Franklin intersect, though Ledecky guessed they’ve only been in the same race a handful of times.
“I knew we’ve been about the same times this year,” Ledecky said. “I knew it was going to be close. I think we both relish that opportunity to put down some good times.”
In 2013, Ledecky qualified to swim the 200m free at the World Championships but scratched it in Barcelona because it conflicted with the 1500m free.
“In all honesty, I preferred last year that she do the 200 over the 1500,” Gemmell said. “But either wiser heads or cooler heads or Katie’s head prevailed, and we swam the 1500 and dropped the 200.”
The 1500m free is not an Olympic event. That in mind, Ledecky has said the 200m free is more in play for Rio 2016.
The anticipation for a Franklin-Ledecky Olympic head to head would be boosted by the fact no U.S. women have gone one-two in an Olympics or Worlds event since 2000. U.S. men have done it 25 times since 2000.
Franklin, who beat a sluggish Ledecky by two seconds in the 200m free at last year’s Nationals, said she’s still learning to race against Ledecky.
Ledecky is pushing Franklin out of her comfort zone, maybe not before races on the deck, but certainly in the final 50 meters.
“It’s a nice little kick in the butt to be like, hey, you can’t just wait and then try and catch her,” said Franklin, who later won the 200m backstroke Thursday, a little over an hour after the 200m free final. “Because she’s going to be right there, and she’s going to be going.”
In other events Thursday, Olympic champion Tyler Clary came from behind to win the men’s 200m back over Ryan Lochte, who faded badly to finish third.
Matt McLean won the men’s 200m free over World silver medalist Conor Dwyer.
Kevin Cordes maintained his breaststroke dominance, winning the 200m breast by just .14 over Nic Fink, closer than expected.
World bronze medalist Micah Lawrence had more breathing room winning the women’s 200m breast by 1.11 over Olympian Breeja Larson.
The U.S. Championships continue Friday, with Michael Phelps returning for the 100m butterfly, the second of a planned four events.
Phelps was seventh in the 100m free Wednesday and has yet to qualify for Pan Pacs.