Katie Ledecky rallies to win signature event after week of illness

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Katie Ledecky‘s rough week at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, ended Saturday with an inspirational win in the 800m freestyle, rallying to beat Italy’s Simona Quadarella.

Ledecky went out fast and led by 1.14 seconds after 200 meters. But her form seemed to slip, and Quadarella, who won the 1,500m freestyle in Ledecky’s absence on Tuesday, took a slim lead at 450 meters that she extended to 0.84 seconds at the 600-meter mark. Ledecky seemed to be a battle for silver at that point.

But Ledecky chipped away. She was within 0.55 seconds at 650 meters. Then 0.12. Quadarella defended her lead for another length of the pool, but then Ledecky simply took off, swimming the final 50 in 29.19 seconds and finishing 1.41 seconds ahead of Quadarella.

“Knowing that I can pull out the last 50m like that, I kind of knew I had a little more speed than Simona and kind of just trusted that I could rely on that at the end,” she said.

Her time of 8:13.58 was nowhere near her world record of 8:04.79, but given the illness that wiped out much of her week, it hardly matters.

Katie Ledecky smiles with her gold medal Saturday
Katie Ledecky poses during the medal ceremony for the 800m freestyle Saturday in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“Just kind of relieved to end on a good note,” Ledecky said. “Not a good time, but I just gutted it out. It was a tough week for me physically, mentally, emotionally and all of it, but I had great support from my friends, family, coaches and medical staff. Never imagined I’d have this kind of week. I’m excited for the next year of work.”

Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who upset Ledecky in the 400m freestyle before the American’s illness was made public, took bronze in the 800 final. She also took silver in the 200m freestyle, from which Ledecky withdrew. Germany’s Sarah Kohler was fourth, ahead of U.S. swimmer Leah Smith.

ALSO SATURDAY: Dressel, Smith win world titles

In a career full of world and Olympic titles, Ledecky has always been particularly strong in the 800m freestyle, an event she first won in the 2012 Olympics. She has won every world and Olympic title since then, a total of six straight major wins.

But in Gwangju, her week started Sunday with a stunning loss to Titmus in the 400m freestyle, breaking a string of world championship wins dating back to 2013. She posted the fastest time in Monday’s 1,500m freestyle heats, by a typical margin of 2.69 seconds, but later revealed that she nearly dropped out because she was feeling unwell. She withdrew from the 200m heats and 1,500m final on Tuesday.

She returned Thursday for the 4x200m freestyle relay, taking the lead in the second leg with a time of 1:54.61 — the third-fastest time of any swimmer in the race — and earned another silver medal.

In between, Ledecky said she spent seven hours in the hospital Tuesday with she believes was a viral illness but hasn’t gotten an exact diagnosis.

Her symptoms included insomnia (on Saturday morning she didn’t fall asleep until 3), an elevated heart rate, headaches and an inability to keep food down. She plans to visit doctors upon landing in the U.S.

Even Saturday morning, she felt nauseous and hot soon after arriving at the pool, but thankfully splashing into the water, where she has looked most comfortable the last seven years, cooled her off. She said she thought about withdrawing from the 800m final “for about a minute.”

Ledecky was antsy Friday night watching teammates Caeleb Dressel and Regan Smith break world records. She texted coach Greg Meehan that she badly wanted to have a strong swim in her last race of an abbreviated meet, knowing she had the best training of her three years at Stanford — by far — going into this competition.

Ledecky came to Gwangju hoping this would mark a checkpoint en route to the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, it turned out to be the most difficult major meet of her dazzling career, one that, along with a gold and two silver medals, will give her a story to bring back to Stanford.

“One I’ll be telling for a while,” she said.

OlympicTalk editor Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.

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Justin Morneau nixes Olympic baseball qualifying return

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Justin Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP with the Minnesota Twins, was taken off Canada’s Olympic baseball qualifying roster before he would have played his first competitive game in more than two years.

Morneau, 38, experienced an unspecified setback in training and was replaced on Canada’s roster for next month’s Premier12. The global tournament marks the first opportunity for many world baseball powers to qualify for the sport’s return to the Olympics.

Morneau never played in the Olympics before baseball was cut from the Games after 2008; active MLB players have never competed in the Games. But he was on Canada’s roster at all four World Baseball Classics from 2006 through 2017.

At November’s Premier12, the top nation from North and South America will qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan and Israel are already qualified. Those that do not qualify will get another chance next year.

Morneau could become the second Major League Baseball MVP to play Olympic baseball as a medal sport. The other was Jason Giambi, who made the U.S. team in 1992, the same summer he was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics.

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Kolohe Andino is first U.S. Olympic surfing qualifier; Kelly Slater faces last chance

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Kolohe Andino is the first American to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut, which leaves one spot left for 47-year-old Kelly Slater to chase at the final contest of the season.

Andino, a 25-year-old Californian whose first name means “rascal” in Hawaiian, clinched his place in Tokyo on Friday at the penultimate stop on the World Surf League Championship Tour in Portugal. He is ranked fifth in the world, trailing a trio of Brazilians.

One more American man will join Andino on the Olympic team. It will be one of Slater, the 11-time world champion, John John Florence, the 2016 and 2017 World champion, and rising 22-year-old Hawaiian Seth Moniz.

Slater was handed a golden opportunity to qualify when Florence announced in early July that he tore an ACL for the second time in 13 months. Florence had won two of the first five events this season.

Slater has been chasing the sidelined Florence in the standings ever since. But it has not been easy.

Slater hasn’t made the quarterfinals in any of his last seven contests going into December’s finale — the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu.

“Ninth place, to me, used to be a pretty awful result. I’m used to at least a quarterfinal on for most of my career,” he said in July, noting a back injury. “I’m not horrified by my results, but I’m also not surprised. Maybe other people are because everyone focuses on my age and that kind of thing. It’s not like I’m going to all of a sudden forget how to do this thing, you know?”

Slater, who won the Pipe Masters seven times between 1992 and 2013, must reach the quarterfinals at this year’s event to have any chance of passing Florence to qualify for the Olympics.

Complicating matters: Florence said in August it was his “goal to get better for Pipeline in case I have to come back and compete and gain points,” according to ESPN.com. If Florence does return for the December contest, and makes the quarterfinals, Slater could only pass him with a victory.

Moniz goes into the finale ranked one spot behind Slater, meaning he, too, can grab that second and final Olympic spot with a win or a runner-up.

Slater, who turns 48 on Feb. 11, would be the oldest U.S. Summer Olympic rookie competitor in a sport other than equestrian, sailing or shooting (or art competitions!) in the last 100 years, supplanting Martina Navratilova, according to the OlyMADMen.

MORE: Top U.S. surfer has links to Egg McMuffin, Guinness World Record holder

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