Katie Ledecky finishes worlds with five golds, one silver

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Katie Ledecky capped the most successful (by medals) major meet of her career with her fifth gold and sixth medal overall in the world championships 800m freestyle on Saturday.

She won in 8:12.68, nearly eight seconds slower than her world record in Rio. China’s Li Bingjie took silver, 2.78 seconds behind, followed by American Leah Smith. Li, who was born in 2002, lowered her personal best by more than five seconds.

Ledecky surpassed her medal totals from the 2015 Worlds — five golds, five overall — and 2016 Olympics — four golds, five overall. Only Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps have won more golds at a single worlds.

However, she was not as dominant as the last two years. Before Saturday, Ledecky was usually between one and two seconds slower per event in Budapest than at her otherworldly Rio Games.

“If that was my bad year for the next four years, then next couple of years are going to be pretty exciting,” Ledecky told media in Budapest.

She set no world records at a major meet for the first time since the 2012 Olympics, when she won her only event, the 800m free, at age 15. Ledecky lowered at least two records at the 2013 Worlds, 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, 2015 Worlds and 2016 Olympics.

Remember, Ledecky faced new challenges in the post-Olympic year, moving from the Washington, D.C., area for the first time, enrolling at Stanford and completing a full NCAA season under a new coach. To expect her to be faster in 2017 than in 2016 would arguably be unrealistic.

“Hasn’t been the best meet for me, but I’m still happy with my swims,” Ledecky said on NBC on Saturday, adding later, “I always wish there was more. … Knowing that I didn’t really set as high of goals this year and have that same motivation I had last year, always being on and on and on. Going through a lot of transitions and changes this year. Knowing that I’ve gone through that year now, I can really take what I learned this year and apply it moving forward.”

Ledecky remains unquestionably the world’s greatest female distance swimmer. The questions going into next year center on her newer events.

Can she return to the top of the world in the 200m freestyle?

The woman who relegated Ledecky to silver in Budapest, veteran Italian Federica Pellegrini, said she’s finished with that event on the major international level.

The woman who was Ledecky’s biggest rival in the 200m free in 2015 and 2016 — Swede Sarah Sjöström — did not swim the 200m free in Budapest and may not contest it again at a major international meet.

The new 200m free challenger is Australian Emma McKeon, the 23-year-old who tied Ledecky for silver in Budapest. Ledecky and McKeon could go head to head at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, a meet for the world’s best swimmers outside of Europe.

However, Australia will be focusing on hosting the Commonwealth Games in April ahead of Pan Pacs in Tokyo in August.

Then there’s Ledecky’s place on the U.S. 4x100m free relay. Ledecky was sixth in the 100m free at nationals but certainly deserved a place on the relay in Budapest given her strong Rio relay effort.

But she went 1.04 seconds slower on her relay leg than in Rio (albeit after swimming the 400m free final earlier in the session). Ledecky was the slowest of the six U.S. swimmers (prelims and finals, factoring in flat starts).

The U.S. is so strong in the 100m free that it doesn’t need to lean on Ledecky in the relay, and she may not be an automatic for the final quartet moving forward in an event that is nowhere near her specialty. Simone Manuel and Mallory Comerford traded American records in the event this week and are in a class of their own.

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WORLDS: TV Schedule | Schedule/Results | Race Videos

Women’s 800m Freestyle Results
Gold: Katie Ledecky (USA) — 8:12.68
Silver: Li Bingjie (CHN) — 8:15.46
Bronze: Leah Smith (USA) — 8:17.22
4. Mireia Belmonte (ESP) — 8:23.30
5. Boglarka Kapas (HUN) — 8:24.41
6. Zhang Yuhan (CHN) — 8:26.06
7. Simona Quadarella (ITA) — 8:26.50
8. Holly Hibbott (GBR) — 8:38.63

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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