Li Bingjie

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‘I’m getting closer to Ledecky,’ new teen swim star says

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We’re used to Katie Ledecky pulling away from swimmers by lengths of the pool in distance races, but one new rival sees the opposite.

“I think I’m getting closer and closer to Ledecky right now,” China’s Li Bingjie said at a FINA World Cup event in Singapore last weekend, according to the New Straits Times.

Li, who was born in 2002, took silver in the 800m freestyle and bronze in the 400m free behind Ledecky at the world championships in July.

Her 800m time — 8:15.46 — was the second-fastest ever for a swimmer other than Ledecky. Ledecky holds the 14 fastest times ever.

Next is Brit Rebecca Adlington‘s gold-medal-winning time from the 2008 Olympics, followed by two more Ledecky times and then Li.

Ledecky beat Li by 2.78 seconds in the world championships 800m.

It marked Ledecky’s smallest margin of victory in a race of 400 meters or longer at a major international meet since 2013 — a run of 10 races among the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, 2015 World Championships, 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships.

In that world 800m final, Li cut five seconds off her personal best and outsplit Ledecky over the last 200 meters. Afterward, she told Chinese media that Ledecky didn’t swim as fast as Li thought she would, according to TeamUSA.org.

“My time wasn’t as fast as I’ve been, but it’s still faster than anybody else has ever been,” Ledecky responded when told of Li’s comments, according to the website. “And it was the end of a really long week for me, a lot of ups and downs. I was happy to just get the gold, and that’s all I really wanted to do in this race tonight, going out and swimming the best race I can. You don’t know what anybody else was going to do. If she was going to come up and challenge me, I would have had to respond.”

Then in September, Li broke Asian records in the 400m and 1500m frees at the Chinese National Games. She is ranked third in the world in both events this year.

“As for [whether I can surpass Ledecky], that’s not for me to say,” Li said last weekend, according to the newspaper.

Ledecky and Li have not met since worlds, and they might not again until 2019.

The major international meet of 2018 is August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Japan, an event that the top Chinese swimmers often skip.

Li reportedly said her next focus is on the Asian Games, which open five days after Pan Pacs.

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MORE: Ledecky wins race by 54 seconds, breaks record

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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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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