Katie Ledecky returns to Olympic-size pool with greater focus, big question

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Michael Phelps is retired. Ryan Lochte is suspended. Missy Franklin is recovering from shoulder surgeries.

Katie Ledecky is the clear spotlight swimmer at a Grand Prix-level weekend for the first time in more than three years starting Thursday in Mesa, Ariz.

Or, for the first time ever if you believe Ledecky wasn’t a marquee name by January 2014 (Austin Grand Prix).

NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air Mesa coverage Thursday, Friday and Saturday, including live streaming finals (nightly at 8 Eastern).

Many Olympic champions are in the field this week, including Simone ManuelAnthony Ervin and Dana Vollmer racing 26 weeks pregnant.

But the three-day focus will be on Ledecky, who will race in an Olympic-size 50-meter pool for the first time since bagging five medals (four gold) at the Rio Games.

She just finished her freshman NCAA season at Stanford, competing in 25-yard pools from November through March and earning the Honda Award as the top female swimmer.

Though Ledecky could turn professional at any time and earn lucrative endorsements, she said she plans to stay amateur for at least one more season in Palo Alto, according to the Washington Post.

Ledecky is entered in six events in Mesa: 100m and 400m freestyles on Thursday; 200m freestyle and 400m individual medley on Friday and the 800m freestyle and 200m individual medley on Saturday.

It’s close to a typical Ledecky slate but intriguing nonetheless given the individual medleys. There is reason to believe Ledecky could race the 400m IM at the U.S. Championships in June and, if she qualifies, perhaps the World Championships in Budapest in July. The schedule is favorable at both meets to add it.

Ledecky has never raced the 400m IM at a major international meet and scratched out of the event on the eve of the Olympic Trials eight months ago. She ranked fifth in the U.S. in the event in 2016 but never raced it fully tapered.

She raced the 400-yard individual medley at the Pac-12 Championships in February and broke the American record (Stanford teammate Ella Eastin later went faster at NCAAs, where Ledecky did not race the 400 IM).

Ledecky’s time was faster than the 400-yard IM personal best of Maya DiRado, who took Olympic 400m IM silver in Rio and then retired.

If Ledecky adds the 400m IM to her worlds schedule, and drops no other events from her last worlds slate, she would swim six events in Budapest. If she is on the 4x100m freestyle relay like she did in Rio, she would swim seven events in Budapest. Unlike Rio, the 4x100m free is on the same day as the 400m free at worlds.

No female swimmer has won seven medals at a single Olympics or world championships.

Only two swimmers of either gender have won five individual medals at a single Olympics or world championships — Shane Gould and Michael Phelps.

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