For so long, we’ve followed Katie Ledecky‘s races for those interminable seconds between her hand touching the wall … and that of the second-place finisher.
But at next week’s world championships, the intrigue is about how close those other swimmers’ hands could be. And the event or two that Ledecky might not win.
“There comes a time when, sooner or later, people are going to start to catch her,” NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines said.
Let’s make this clear: Ledecky is still doing things in the pool that nobody else has. She goes into worlds, beginning with a 400m freestyle test on Sunday in South Korea, ranked No. 1 in the globe this year in the 400m, 800m and 1500m frees with times no other active woman has ever matched outside of the high-tech suit era.
But she is ranked fifth in her toughest event, the 200m freestyle, the must-watch race of the eight-day meet. This will be the first time since 2016 that Ledecky goes into the year’s biggest meet not ranked No. 1 in one of her four individual races.
Maybe even more noteworthy, her margins over the No. 2 swimmers in the 400m, 800m and 1500m going into a year’s major meet are their smallest since 2013. Ledecky was 16 then, not ranked No. 1 in any event going into her first world championships (she ended up sweeping the 400m, 800m and 1500m frees with her first two of 14 world records so far).
Now, Ledecky’s biggest threat in each event is at least three years younger than her. If Ledecky wants to lower her personal-best times (three of them from the Rio Olympics, when she was 19), it will take a world record in the 400m, 800m or 1500m.
“I just feel bad because I think we did this with Michael [Phelps] a little bit,” Gaines said. “We just take her greatness for granted sometimes. She can go in there and win the bronze in the 200m and win golds in the 400m, 800m and 1500m, and people will still say, she didn’t go quite as fast as she did in Rio. It’s just so weird because she’s set this bar that’s so high, impossible to live up to. I still say she’s the greatest female swimmer in history.”
Ledecky’s 10 individual world titles trail only Phelps’ 15, but Ledecky gathered hers in three meets so far. Phelps competed at six worlds. Ledecky will move one shy of Phelps if she repeats her “Ledecky Slam” of 2015, when she swept the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m.
But that 200m is looking awfully tough, hearkening memories of one of Phelps’ greatest Olympic races. One which he lost.
The 200m freestyle at the 2004 Olympics, dubbed the “Race of the Century” for it included the reigning Olympic champion Pieter van den Hoogenband from the Netherlands, reigning world champion and world-record holder Ian Thorpe of Australia, Phelps as he bid for eight gold medals and another decorated Australian, Grant Hackett. Gold: Thorpe. Silver: Van den Hoogenand. Bronze: Phelps, who might have won a 210m freestyle that night in Athens.
The women’s 200m free final at worlds, scheduled for next Wednesday, could include the last three Olympic champions (Ledecky, countrywoman Allison Schmitt and Federica Pellegrini), the reigning world champion and world-record holder (also the 30-year-old Italian Pellegrini), the fastest woman of 2018 (Canadian teen Taylor Ruck), the fastest of 2019 (Australian teen Ariarne Titmus) and the fastest female sprinter in history, Swede Sarah Sjöström.
“Everyone seems to be firing,” Ledecky said.
Ledecky would contest the 200m free semifinals within an hour after her 1500m free final on Tuesday. Then the 200m free final the following night. Just like she did at the 2015 and 2017 Worlds.
“It falls on a tricky time,” said Greg Meehan, Ledecky’s coach at Stanford. “There really isn’t anybody else in the world that’s managing the racing load that she is.”
Ledecky recalled the final strokes of the 200m free at the last worlds in 2017, when she lost an individual final at a major international meet for the first time. She shared silver with Aussie Emma McKeon (also in next week’s 200m free field), .45 behind Pellegrini.
“I remember the last 15 [meters] not feeling like I had much, moving my arms and legs as hard as I could. It didn’t feel very good,” said Ledecky, who said at the time that she didn’t have her usual “extra gear” as Pellegrini passed her and McKeon in the last 50 meters.
Then in 2018, Ledecky was beaten by a younger swimmer at a major international meet for the first time. Two, in fact. Ruck and Japanese teen Rikako Ikee (since sidelined by leukemia) relegated her to 200m bronze at last August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo.
Ledecky noted that she has since worked on “little things” she can do the morning after that 200m free semi-1500m free final double to set herself up well for the 200m free final. But she is also devoting slightly more time to training for the 1500m since it will debut on the Olympic program in 2020.
“The biggest challenge is that my best times are pretty fast right now. They’re world records in the 400m, 800m and mile,” she said. “Trying to go best times, yeah, it’s harder than it was when I was 15 and my times were a little slower.”
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