Katie Ledecky opened the new year with her usual domination — with a twist.
The world record holder in the 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles dipped down to the 100m free and set a personal best both in the morning preliminaries and the final at the Arena Pro Swim Series stop in Austin, Texas, on Thursday.
Ledecky, a Maryland high school senior, won the 100m free final in 54.55 seconds. She came into the day with a personal best of 54.96.
“I definitely kind of exceeded my expectations,” Ledecky told reporters in Austin (full Thursday results here).
About 40 minutes after her victory, Ledecky clocked the eighth-fastest 400m free of all time to win that event.
“That was my best 400 unshaven,” meaning that was her fastest 400m free outside of a U.S. Championships, World Championships or Pan Pacific Championships. “I was pretty surprised when I touched the wall, because it didn’t feel really fast.”
In both races, Ledecky beat Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, the woman whom FINA tapped as the 2014 World Swimmer of the Year over Ledecky. Hosszu is the world’s best all-around swimmer, and she is arguably better in the backstroke and butterfly than freestyle. Ledecky is the world’s best freestyle swimmer.
Ledecky shaving four tenths of a second off her 100m free time makes one wonder if she will try to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the 100m free (individually or relay), in addition to the 200m, 400m and 800m. Ledecky and her coach, Bruce Gemmell, did not rule out adding the 100m free in November interviews.
Her 54.55 on Thursday would not be fast enough to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the individual 100m free, but for her to set a personal best in a January meet is impressive, even for her. Swimmers train to peak in the summer, not the winter.
On Thursday, Ledecky beat Megan Romano by .24 in the 100m free. Romano famously had the second-fastest split of 32 swimmers in the 2013 World Championships 400m free relay, though she was slower in 2014 and did not make the U.S. team for this summer’s World Championships.
Neither of the U.S.’ top two 100m free swimmers — Missy Franklin and Simone Manuel — are swimming in Austin this week.
If Ledecky continues to improve in the 100m free and made the 2016 U.S. Olympic team in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m frees, she could swim seven events at the Rio Olympics when including relays. No woman has won seven swimming medals at a single Olympics (only one has done so in any sport, summer or winter, Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya in 1952).
If the yet-to-be-released 2016 Olympic swimming schedule mirrors that of London 2012, she could swim all seven events without having to race more than two times in one session (a key for Michael Phelps in the past).
In other events Thursday, 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte finished fourth in the 100m butterfly (won by Jack Conger).
Olympic champion Nathan Adrian won the 100m free ahead of Conor Dwyer, who was also second to World bronze medalist Connor Jaeger in the 400m free.
World bronze medalist Micah Lawrence won the women’s 200m breaststroke.
Finals continue Friday and Saturday in Austin.