Katie Ledecky wins 400m free at Pan Pacs, but she has company

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Katie Ledecky is still queen of the 400m freestyle, but now a younger swimmer is closer to Ledecky than any previous rival.

Ledecky won the 400m free at the Pan Pacific Championships in 3:58.50, the sixth-fastest time ever. She was under world-record pace through 250 meters in Tokyo. None of that is a surprise.

Runner-up Ariarne Titmus has been the recent revelation, clocking an Australian record 3:59.66 on Saturday and finishing about a body length behind Ledecky, outsplitting her in the last half of the race. Nobody has been that close to the American in a major 400m final.

“It’s exciting for me to see how I kind of put the standard out there,” Ledecky said. “I know there a lot of girls that are chasing that. It’s good to see someone get under it [four minutes]. It’s going to push me to go even faster and set the benchmark a little higher.”

PAN PACS: Results | TV/Stream Schedule

Ledecky winning margins in 400m frees
2013 Worlds — 2.65 seconds
2014 Pan Pacs — 6.18
2015 Worlds — 3.89
2016 Olympics — 4.77
2017 Worlds — 3.2
2018 Pan Pacs — 1.16

Ledecky was not on Saturday’s U.S. 4x100m free relay that took silver behind Australia, which means she has one event left at Pan Pacs, Sunday’s 1500m free.

Ledecky is an overwhelming favorite there, putting her in line to finish the meet with three golds, one silver and one bronze in five events. She captured five golds in six events at 2014 Pan Pacs, breaking two world records.

“It’s been a tough week competing in a different time zone, very far from the U.S., 16-hour time difference,” Ledecky said. “So it’s been a lot harder, I think, than all of us anticipated, knowing that we just got here [Sunday].”

Titmus, 17, became the third woman to break four minutes in the 400m free after Ledecky and former world-record holder Federica Pellegrini.

Titmus ranks third in the world in the 200m free this year but skipped the event at Pan Pacs, where Ledecky finished third behind Canadian Taylor Ruck and Japanese Rikako Ikee. The Tasmanian also ranks third in the 800m free, nearly 10 seconds behind Ledecky, so the 400m may be her sweet spot.

“That’s the goal, to be up there with her and hopefully she’ll enjoy having someone to race,” Titmus said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “She hasn’t had anyone to race for a long time, so I’m getting closer. On the sixth lap [from 250 meters to 300 meters] I pulled her back in a bit, but she has a bit more speed than me, and she got away a bit on the seventh 50 and not the last 50. I did the best I could.”

Also Saturday, seven-time 2017 World champion Caeleb Dressel won the 100m butterfly by .57 in 50.75, a quarter of a second off his time from nationals two weeks ago, which remains fastest in the world this year.

Dressel later led off the U.S. men’s 4x100m free relay anchored by Nathan Adrian, edging Brazil by .35. But the Americans were later disqualified for swimming out of order.

Chase Kalisz completed a sweep of the individual medleys, as he did at 2017 Worlds, by taking the 200m IM in 1:55.40, a personal best.

Olympic champion Mack Horton was upset by fellow Aussie Jack McLoughlin in the men’s 400m free — 3:44.20 to 3:44.31. Horton’s 3:43.76 from the Commonwealth Games on April 5 remains fastest in the world this year.

Ikee captured the women’s 100m fly in 56.08, becoming the fourth fastest woman all time. World bronze medalist Kelsi Dahlia of the U.S. was second in 56.44. Olympic and world champion Sarah Sjöström of Sweden, not competing at Pan Pacs, has the 11 fastest times ever.

World silver medalist Yui Ohashi of Japan clocked the fastest women’s 200m IM of the year — 2:08.16.

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WATCH LIVE: Simone Biles returns to U.S. Gymnastics Championships

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Simone Biles‘ comeback continues at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, live on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Friday night.

Biles enters her second meet since the Rio Olympics, where she earned four gold medals.

She is a clear favorite to win her fifth U.S. all-around title, which would break the record she currently shares.

LIVE STREAM: U.S. Gym Championships — 8 p.m. ET (for Olympic Channel subscribers)

Biles showed her comeback was for real at her first meet back three weeks ago, winning the U.S. Classic despite an uneven bars fall. Her all-around score was the highest in the world since Rio.

Friday marks the fifth anniversary of Biles’ first national title, when she was a braces-wearing, first-year senior gymnast oozing with talent but also unproven. She became so dominant that the prevailing notion was that everyone else was competing in a non-Simone division.

A new generation of women go up against Biles in the two-day meet that concludes Sunday.

That includes Ragan Smith and Morgan Hurd, who won the U.S. and world all-around titles in Biles’ absence last year, and Riley McCusker, who led the U.S. Classic going into the final rotation.

Gymnasts are competing to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

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Ragan Smith defends U.S. gymnastics title, competing through pain

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BOSTON — When Ragan Smith won the U.S. all-around title last August, her margin of victory was greater than Simone Biles‘ average the previous four years.

At the world championships in October, Smith fell off the balance beam in qualifying and still posted the second-highest all-around score, just .001 off the lead. If Smith hit all four routines in the final, she would be crowned the world’s greatest gymnast of 2017 (during Biles’ break from the sport).

But as the all-around final began at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, Smith crutched out of the training gym. She suffered three torn left ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault, according to the Dallas Morning News, that needed four to five months to heal.

Smith is expected to compete in the all-around at the U.S. Championships on Friday and Sunday (broadcast schedule here), looking to impress a world championships team selection committee. The five-woman world team will be named after an October selection camp.

The ankle still hurts sometimes. So do her three or four broken toes. Smith doesn’t know the exact number because she doesn’t like to get medical check-ups before meets. She would think too much about the diagnosis.

In fact, Smith said she felt pain in practice every day for the last year.

“Everything starts hurting worse because we’re getting older,” said Smith, who turned 18 last week. Smith added that a coach joked to her recently, “You already have a 100-year-old body.” 

“Everybody I feel like has injuries here and there,” she said. “Everybody’s like banged up right now. We [gymnasts] are so strong mentally and physically that I feel like we push through it.”

Back home in the Dallas area, Smith marks her goals on a dry-erase board. The chief one for her two summer meets is this: Be the best Ragan I can be.

“That’s all I’m really striving for this competition,” she said Wednesday.

Smith did not do the all-around at the U.S. Classic three weeks ago, skipping floor exercise because she wants to debut it as a surprise this week. She called Classic “a practice run,” where her best result was third on beam.

Only two gymnasts per nation can compete in a world all-around final. If Biles is one of them, then Smith has to beat out Morgan Hurd (who won the 2017 World all-around title after Smith’s injury) and Riley McCusker (second to Biles at the U.S. Classic).

Smith, the youngest Rio Olympic alternate, is determined to compete on the elite level through 2020. She can take motivation from her bedroom wall and that dry-erase board, both of which had the same quote posted — “She believed she could so she did.”

“These coming up years, it’s definitely who’s in the game the longest. It’s definitely who’s not injured,” she said. “That’s pretty much who they pick, I feel like. You’re training your whole life for one year of gymnastics because that’s when you have to be at your highest peak. I definitely feel like it’s who’s in the game the longest and who can survive and who can help their body the best.”

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