Katie Ledecky has entered 10 Olympic and World Championships races and won all of them, but her perfection could be put to the test like never before at the 2016 Olympics.
In Rio, Ledecky may have to deal with the addition to the 200m freestyle of the world’s fastest swimmer in the event each of the last two years. Swede Sarah Sjostrom sat out the 200m free last week at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, where Ledecky won by .16 over Italian world-record holder Federica Pellegrini.
Pellegrini is 27 and debuted at the Olympics in 2004, meaning the veteran could have a tough time keeping pace with Ledecky, nine years her junior, going into 2016.
However, Sjostrom is just 21 and closer to peak age.
The Swede led off the 4x200m free relay in Kazan in a personal-best 1:54.31, which was .85 faster than Ledecky’s winning time in the individual 200m free.
Sjostrom won as many medals as Ledecky in Kazan (five) but sat out the individual 200m free because it could have harmed her fitness for her “main events,” the 50m and 100m freestyles and butterflies.
While in Kazan, Sjostrom said she will most likely enter the 200m free at the Rio Olympics. That makes sense, given the 200m free in Rio takes place on the two days Sjostrom has off from her main events.
“I bet that she’ll swim that event in Rio,” Ledecky said of Sjostrom and the 200m free on Eurosport on Sunday. “I’ve never had the opportunity to race her yet, so, hopefully, I’ll get that chance.”
That could create a female version of the Race of the Century from the 2004 Olympics, when Ian Thorpe, Pieter van den Hoogenband, Michael Phelps and Grant Hackett lined up in the 200m free final.
In Rio, a women’s 200m free final could include the world-record holder Pellegrini, the 2013 World champion Missy Franklin, the 2015 World champion Ledecky, the world’s greatest all-around swimmer Katinka Hosszu and the fastest woman in the event the last two years, Sjostrom.
Regardless of Sjostrom, Ledecky could seek a greater challenge by adding another event — the 100m freestyle. Ledecky could earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic 4x100m free relay team by clocking a top-six time at the Olympic trials either June 30 or July 1.
The Rio Olympic 4x100m free relay takes place on the first day of competition, when Ledecky has no other events.
“You know she’s going to get faster to swim a world-class 200, and with that comes a pretty good 100,” her coach, Bruce Gemmell, said in November.
Ledecky was asked what her 100m free personal best was in Sunday’s Eurosport interview.
“54.5, which is OK,” she said. “It’s not very competitive at this stage yet. Hopefully I can get that time down a little bit.”
Ledecky is right. The 54.55 she swam on Jan. 15 ranks her No. 42 in the world and No. 9 among Americans. However, that 54.55 came at a time of the year when swimmers aren’t peaked. There’s reason to believe she would have been much faster in a 100m free in Kazan.
Even if Ledecky made it onto the U.S. 4x100m relay in Rio — likely with Franklin and Simone Manuel leading the group — the U.S. would be decided underdogs.
An Australian quartet anchored by sisters Bronte and Cate Campbell broke the 4x100m free relay world record at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Australia then routed the U.S. by 1.77 seconds at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships. At Worlds, the U.S. was 3.13 seconds behind Australia and .94 behind the Netherlands.
After Ledecky won five golds in five events in Kazan, her coach said there were “many ways” his 18-year-old pupil can get better after her impending break to have her wisdom teeth removed.
“Her turns are still not particularly good,” Gemmell told media in Kazan. “She of course can get stronger.”
That might be required for perfection at the Rio Olympics.