Katie Ledecky’s growth evident on anniversary of breakout

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Five thoughts off Saturday’s finals at swim meets in Charlotte and Atlanta:

1. Katie Ledecky has come a long way in four years

It was this weekend four years ago that Katie Ledecky became a U.S. Olympic team contender. At the 2012 Charlotte Grand Prix, a 15-year-old Ledecky finished second in the 400m freestyle and won the 800m freestyle.

On Saturday, Ledecky won a 400m free in Atlanta by 8.72 seconds in 4:00.31. In 2012, she went 4:05.79 at that Charlotte meet, one month before she qualified to become the youngest member of Team USA in London.

In two days in Atlanta, Ledecky won the 200m and 400m frees easily and set a personal best in the 400m individual medley by 1.25 seconds. She will likely swim two more events Sunday to close the meet, which could be her final races before the Olympic Trials from June 26-July 3.

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2. Natalie Coughlin is an unknown

The 12-time Olympic medalist made a triumphant return to the 100m backstroke last year by posting the fastest time in the U.S. by a comfortable .35 of a second over 2012 Olympic champion Missy Franklin.

This year, Coughlin ranks sixth among Americans in the 100m back after clocking 1:01.07 in prelims and 1:01.18 in the final in Atlanta. Coughlin’s best time last year was 59.05.

Fortunately for Coughlin, Franklin is the only U.S. woman to break one minute in 2016. If Franklin is the Olympic Trials favorite, the second spot looks up for grabs at this point.

3. Anthony Ervin matches his 2000 Olympic time

The tattooed Ervin may have one more Olympics left in him. At 34, Ervin is trying to become the oldest U.S. man to swim an individual event at the Games since 1904, according to sports-reference.com.

Ervin needs to finish top two at the trials in the 50m freestyle to do that. On Saturday, he moved up to No. 2 in the U.S. rankings this year (behind Nathan Adrian) by clocking 21.98 to win in Charlotte, his new training base. The time was his fastest-ever this early in a year and matched his Olympic final time in 2000, when he shared gold with Gary Hall Jr.

Ervin also swam 21.98 at the 2015 World Championships, where he missed the final in a swim-off. That time ranked him fifth in the U.S. for 2015, so he’ll need to be faster at trials to make his third Olympic team.

4. Madison Kennedy backs up her wind-aided Mesa time

In April, Kennedy clocked the fastest U.S. women’s 50m freestyle outside of the fast suit era of 2008 and 2009. But it was thought to be heavily aided by huge tailwinds. Maybe it wasn’t.

Kennedy confirmed on Saturday, indoors, that she deserves to be favored to qualify for her first major international meet at age 28. She swam 24.53, just .08 off her Mesa time.

No other Americans broke 25 seconds in Atlanta or Charlotte on Saturday, including Simone Manuel, the fastest American in the event in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Manuel clocked 25.21 in Atlanta.

5. The Olympics may be too early for Reece Whitley

Whitley, a 6-foot-8 high school sophomore profiled by Sports Illustrated for Kids and The New York Times, is a great talent in the breaststroke.

In 2015, he ranked No. 7 in the U.S. in the 200m breast at age 15. The top two at the Olympic Trials on June 27 make the Olympic team, so Whitley’s ascent needs to speed up if Rio is a hope.

“The trials may be six months too early for him,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said, according to the Times profile this week.

That appears true after the 200m breast finals in Atlanta and Charlotte on Saturday. In Charlotte, Cody Miller won in 2:12.22. In Atlanta, Josh Prenot prevailed in 2:09.49. Whitley was second in Atlanta, but well back in 2:14.99.

Whitley could become the first U.S. Olympic swimmer born in the 2000s, but he may have to wait until 2020 to earn that distinction.

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