IRVINE, Calif. — Katie Ledecky didn’t feel very fast. Couldn’t find the gear in the second half of the 800m freestyle on Wednesday night.
She still won by 10 seconds.
Ledecky opened the U.S. Swimming Championships with a convincing — but not especially satisfying — victory in her trademark Olympic event to qualify for August’s Pan Pacific Championships. The five-time Olympic gold medalist bagged an uncharacteristic victory on a night that included two upsets among six finals, notably world champion Caeleb Dressel finishing sixth in the 100m freestyle.
Ledecky was under world-record pace at 350 meters at the outdoor Irvine High School pool. She finished 7.19 seconds slower than her world record in 8:11.98. It’s still faster than any other woman has ever covered 800 meters, giving Ledecky the 19 fastest times in history.
“I’m fine with it, didn’t feel super sharp, but it always takes me a little bit of time to get into these meets,” Ledecky said, noting swimming in 80-degree heat. “My best races are when the first 400 and the second 400 are pretty even.”
It’s nit-picking, but Ledecky’s splits were not even. She went 7.4 seconds slower in the back half than the first 400 meters. Of her 18 other fastest times in history, Ledecky’s biggest difference in splits was 5.9 seconds.
Second-place Leah Smith still couldn’t close on Ledecky, even with a personal best.
Ledecky is just getting started in Irvine. She’s scheduled to swim three more events, starting with the 200m freestyle on Thursday. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA airs live finals coverage at 9 p.m. ET.
This is the biggest domestic meet between now and the 2020 Olympic Trials because it’s a qualifier for the next two major international meets. It’s likely that the top three finishers per individual Olympic event will make the Pan Pacs team, which is capped at 26 men and 26 women.
Once a swimmer makes Pan Pacs in one event, he or she can swim any event at Pan Pacs, taking some of the pressure off this week’s meet. Swimmers’ best times between nationals and Pan Pacs determine the 2019 World Championships team.
The biggest star in danger of not qualifying for Pan Pacs and worlds is Missy Franklin.
The quadruple 2012 Olympic champion missed Wednesday’s 100m freestyle final. Her only other event this week, in her first major meet since her disappointing Rio Games, is the 200m free on Thursday. Franklin must finish in the top four, but she ranks 10th in the U.S. in the event this year.
The meet already lacks 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte, who is suspended until July 2019 for an illegal IV infusion after a social media blunder.
In other Wednesday events, co-Olympic champion Simone Manuel clocked the fastest 100m free ever on U.S. soil — 52.54, also her second-fastest time ever. She beat Mallory Comerford by .55. Margo Geer and Abbey Weitzeil were third and fourth to make the Pan Pacs team, too.
The men’s 100m free didn’t go to plan. Dressel, who won seven medals at the 2017 Worlds, was stunningly sixth (after qualifying seventh into the eight-man final). Dressel lowered the American record in the 100m free twice at worlds but was 1.53 seconds slower than his best time in Wednesday’s final.
Instead, Blake Pieroni clocked a personal-best 48.08 for the upset. Pieroni snuck onto the Rio Olympic 4x100m free relay by placing sixth at trials. He beat a field Wednesday that included all three active members of the Rio 4x100m free final team, edging Nathan Adrian by .17. Adrian lost the 100m free at nationals for the first time since the 2008 Olympic Trials.
Dressel is entered in seven more events this week. All he must do is make the team in one of them, and he can re-enter the 100m free at Pan Pacs.
Olympian Hali Flickinger captured the 200m butterfly by 1.04 seconds over Katie Drabot in 2:06.14. Flickinger, seventh in Rio, made her third straight major international meet in the 200m fly and now ranks third all-time among Americans in the event.
Justin Wright took 1.48 seconds off his 200m fly personal best on Wednesday en route to upsetting Olympians Chase Kalisz and Jack Conger.
Jordan Wilimovsky, fourth and fifth in two Rio distance events, won the 1500m freestyle in 14:48.89, 6.45 seconds ahead of Robert Finke.
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