OMAHA, Neb. — In about 60 minutes, Katie Ledecky managed to do several things. She won the 200-meter freestyle title (1:55:11), collected her gold medal at the ceremony and gave a short pool-side press conference (where she joked that she couldn’t form words because she was internally warming up for the next race). Then she walked back out to the pool to thundering Omaha applause. It was like watching a perfectly choreographed dance.
She was a seasoned champion, but she was about to do something new and exciting — she was about to take part in the debut 1,500-meter freestyle event in the U.S. Olympic trials.
Ledecky had a calmness about her, like she’d done this a million times. And in a way, she has. She owns the 11 fastest 1,500-meter free times in the history of the event.
So, in the first-ever 1,500-meter freestyle U.S. Olympic swim trials, Ledecky dominated the race, and when she touched down at 15:40:50, not a single other swimmer was on the screen. She waited a good 10 seconds for Erica Sullivan, who beat her personal best by several seconds, to finish second (15:51:18) and qualify for Tokyo. Ledecky’s 15:40:50 finish time was the fastest in the world this year.
When Ledecky exited the pool having qualified for her third event (400-meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle) — two in under 90 minutes on Wednesday — there was no over-the-top reaction, just a smile and a thumbs up. At the medal ceremony, she beamed and waved after receiving her gold medal, making the entire evening look like a cake walk.
“The men have had a mile at the Olympics since 1908 … and now we’ve finally got one,” she said at the pool-side press interview. “I am just grateful we have the time, that’s a great step,” she added at the post-event conference.
Ledecky came here to prove a point. And she did.
It’s been seven years since she last lost a freestyle of 200 meters or longer domestically.
After a blistering start by teenager Bella Sims, Ledecky pulled away, finishing at 1:55:11, not her strongest performance by far (Australia’s Ariarne Titmus posted a much better time — 1:53:09 — in the Australian Olympic Trials in comparison).
After her 200-meter freestyle race, Ledecky said she wanted to keep moving to make sure she stayed warm, but didn’t want to walk too fast or exert too much energy. She said she ate a banana and drank some chocolate milk while waiting for the medal ceremony.
Ledecky said she told herself to pace the longer race, she didn’t want to “spin out” like it was a sprint, but rather take her time with the front half, which explained the closer competition between her and Erica Sullivan for the first 500 meters. Even though Ledecky pulled away with a solid lead after the 600-meter mark, Sullivan’s performance was remarkable, which Ledecky praised in the news conference.
Ledecky is a pro at doing multiple events in short durations — she had to race the 1,500-meter freestyle and then the 200-meter freestyle semifinal (which happened in the span of 20 minutes) at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia. Wednesday, she did the opposite — warming up with a 200-meter freestyle win, followed by a longer, more energy-exerting 1,500-meter debut win. At the Tokyo Olympics, the schedule is similarly challenging, with several heats scheduled for the same day.
“It’s a bit different, but I feel prepared,” Ledecky said.
Michael Phelps summarized Ledecky’s dominance well in a news conference earlier in the week: “She is recreating what is possible. That is awesome to watch.”
Other note-worthy results of the night:
Former University of Louisville swimmer Zach Harting, 23, qualified for his first Olympic games after winning the 200-meter butterfly event in 1:55:06. Regan Smith, 19, who struggled during the pandemic after winning the World Championship in 2019, qualified for the finals in the 200-meter butterfly semis. In a disappointing performance, Nathan Adrian, who recovered from a testicular cancer diagnosis in 2019, failed to qualify for the final of the 100-meter freestyle race, finishing sixth in his heat and 13th overall at 48:92.
Allison Schmitt, who finished second after Ledecky in the 200-meter freestyle final to qualify for her fourth Olympic Games had an emotional moment after the race. She ran toward Phelps, who stood on the sidelines, and hugged him the duo sharing an intimate moment. They’ve both been vocal about their struggle against depression, and Schmitt said, “I don’t even know how to put it into words. He’s been a brother inside the pool and outside the pool. It helped me so much. Even now, when he’s not swimming, he’s a huge part of it.”