2022 World Champs Previews: Ledecky Eyes Return To Queen’s Throne In 400 Free

2022 FINA WORLD AQUATICS CHAMPIONSHIPS

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By The Numbers:

Even with the absence of Ariarne Titmus in the women’s 400 free, her presence can still be felt on the pool deck.

This especially holds true for Katie Ledecky, the Terminator’s biggest rival. Even though we won’t see the same head-to-head showdown at Worlds between Ledecky and Titmus that we got in 2019 and 2021, Ledecky will still be racing Titmus in the form of the moving world record line shown on our TV screens.

Ledecky just got her eight-year streak as the world record holder in the event snapped by Titmus a few weeks ago at the 2022 Australian Swimming trials. The Aussie went a time of 3:56.40, taking 0.06 seconds off Ledecky’s old 3:56.46 mark from 2016. Titmus is now both the first to beat Ledecky in the 400 free at a major international meet (when she did so in 2019) and the first to break one of Ledecky’s world records.

As the greatest distance swimmer of all time, chasing someone else’s world record rather than just breaking her own is a rare position for Ledecky to be in. That’s why the upcoming World Championships will be her opportunity to respond to the warning shots that Titmus fired out at Australian trials.

Whether Ledecky breaks this world record or not has become a hot topic of debate, even resulting SwimSwam founder Gold Medal Mel Stewart asking this question in a previous article.

So….is it happening or not?

Sink: The Age Concern + Lack Of Competition

When you look at the history and facts, it is clear that they are not in Ledecky’s favor. It’s widely regarded that female distance swimmers peak in their late teens, and as a 25-year-old, the chances of Ledecky setting another best time are bleak. In fact, at 21, Titmus became the second-oldest world record holder in the 400 free, and only the third non-teenager to break the world record in the event. When a swimmer a whole four years younger than Ledecky is one of the oldest to break a world record, it makes the thought of Ledecky taking back the “fastest-ever” title seemingly impossible.

It’s been four years since Ledecky has set a best time in one of her primary events, and six years since she broke the record in the 400 free. So for her to suddenly drop a lifetime best beyond the peak stages of her career would be extremely unusual. In addition, the momentum is also in Titmus’ favor. She only broke Ledecky’s record by six one-hundredths, and could very well lower it by an even larger margin at the Commonwealth Games later this year. And while Titmus has been 3:56-point three times in the last two years, Ledecky has only done so once, and that was all the way back in 2016.

Ledecky’s season-best time of 3:59.52 this year is ranked second in the world, but she’s going to have to be a lot faster than that in Budapest if she wants this record back.

Finally, being a heavy favorite in this race has its consequences. Without Titmus, Ledecky remains the only swimmer in the field who has been under the four-minute mark. This means that unless a rising star like Summer McIntosh has a breakout swim and drops a massive amount of time, Ledecky isn’t really going to have anyone to race, which might be a disadvantage when it comes to maintaining a world record pace (though it’s something she’s gotten used to over the years).

Swim: Never Underestimate The Distance Queen

Before you doubt Ledecky’s chances for the reasons stated above, ask yourself, what are the moments that define her career?

Well, for starters, her rise to stardom was characterized by winning surprise Olympic gold as a 15-year-old in the 800 free and beating out the heavily favored world record holder, Rebecca Adlington. She split 1:53.76 anchoring a 4×200 free relay at the Tokyo Olympics just a day after going 1:55.21 in the individual 200 free and missing the podium. She went 52-point twice on the 4×100 free relays in Rio after finishing seventh at trials. She came back to win the 800 free at 2019 Worlds despite being ill all week. When we all thought she was done breaking world records, she went on to break the 1500 free world record by five seconds at a Pro Swim Series meet in 2018. And most recently, she swam a sub-8:10 800 free at the 2022 U.S. Trials, a threshold many thought she wouldn’t get under again in her career.

My point is, you don’t put Katie Ledecky and “can’t” in the same sentence. She’s been challenging our expectations of her race after race for many years now, even when she’s not at her peak.

When you put all that aside, Ledecky still looks the best that she’s been in a long time. Her season-best times in the 200 free (1:54.66) and 800 free (8:09.27) were faster than the times she went in Tokyo, and her 800 free time is her fastest since 2018. In addition, Ledecky’s recent move to the University of Florida could be a huge benefit to her. She trains with the best male mid-distance/distance group in America, which includes the perks of having a world-class 400 freestyler like Kieran Smith or Trey Freeman push her in practice. World Champs will be the first major international meet where we see the effects of Ledecky’s new training environment come into play, so she could be primed for something big. The 400 free is also Ledecky’s first race of the meet, allowing her to come into the event fresh and not drained from previous events.

So even when the odds are not on her side to re-break this 400 free record, do not doubt the queen of distance swimming.

The Challengers On The Frontier

This race isn’t all about Ledecky, though. Even if she’s the favorite to win the race, much of the spotlight will also be centered around a 15-year-old Canadian named Summer McIntosh.

Last year in Tokyo, McIntosh quietly finished fourth in the 400 free with a time of 4:02.42. A year later, she’s dropped nearly a second off of her best time, clocking 4:01.59 at Canadian Trials. And while that time is only ranked third in the world behind Ledecky and Titmus, it’s faster than what either of them could go when they were 15. The improvement trajectory that she’s going on is scary, shown by the fact that she’s gone best times in three different events this year, including a 4:29.12 400 IM that ranks her third-fastest of all time.

Being so fast at such a young age, McIntosh is the future of the 400 free, and Budapest is her chance to turn that fourth-place finish from last year into something big.

A swimmer that’s the exact opposite of McIntosh is Leah Smith, a longtime veteran in mid-distance free. She’s qualified to swim individual events in the 200, 400, and 800 free this year, making it hard to believe that the same person failed to make the Olympic team just a year ago. Although many of her accomplishments hide behind the fact that we haven’t seen her race internationally since 2019, keep in mind that she’s an Olympic bronze medalist (2016) and a Worlds silver and bronze medalist (2017, 2019) in the 400 free, and remains one of the only women to have neared the four-minute mark with her best time of 4:00.65.

This year, Smith finished second at trials with a time of 4:03.15, the seventh-fastest time in the world and her fastest time in three years. A lot of her bounce-back from trials can be pointed towards her recent move to train at the University of Texas, which is slowly turning into a women’s distance hub with stars like Erica Sullivan and Evie Pfeifer also there. In a field that is relatively young where swimmers are prone to the pressure of a big meet, count on Smith’s longtime experience to pull her to success.

Li Bingjie 2017 World Championships Budapest, Hungary (photo: Mike Lewis)

Then there’s the defending Olympic bronze medalist, China’s Li Bingjie. She had an Asian record-worthy swim in Tokyo where she clocked a time of 4:01.08, but more recently, she threw down an incredible showing at the 2021 Short Course World Championships where she won both the 400 and 800 free, beating second-place McIntosh by over two seconds in the former event.

Li is right up there with the top this year with her 4:03.63 from the Chinese National Games, which ranks her ninth in the world. However, her fellow countrymate Tang Muhan was actually faster than her at the same meet. The 18-year-old put down a mark of 4:01.95 to rank her fourth in the world and take the national title. That time was over a two-second improvement from the 4:04.10 she swam in Tokyo to place fifth, and throws her into podium-contender position.

The problem with Li and Tang is that China’s status coming into Worlds is a big question mark. The country has been hit hard with COVID-19 pandemic, and although swimmers are cleared to go to Budapest, China has had numerous competitions such as their trials meet canceled due to the pandemic. In fact, their Worlds team was selected solely based on “internal tests” that were performed at a national team training camp. With a lack of real racing experience this year, will Li and Tang still be able to match their performances from last year?

In the midst of Titmus’s world record at Australian Trials, Lani Pallister was also swimming her way to becoming the second-fastest Australian of all time in the same pool. The 4:02.21 she swam ranks her fourth in the world, and is a stark improvement from her previous best time of 4:05.42. Much like many of the other aforementioned swimmers, Pallister is on a massive improvement surge, having qualified for Worlds in the 200/400/800 free a year after missing the Olympics. Budapest will be her first senior international meet, and it’s just a matter of whether the pressures of such a big competition will hinder her from repeating her trials performances or not.

Because first-place Ariarne Titmus opted out of World Championships, Kiah Melverton, the third-place finisher in the 400 free at Australian Trials, will likely be able to swim the event individually at Worlds. In their Worlds qualification criteria, Swimming Australia does not say anything about the fate of third-place finishers when someone who placed above them pulls out, only stating that the top two under the qualifying time in each event will get to swim it individually. However, it can be reasonably assumed that Melverton will be able to swim this 400 free, as her time of 4:04.49 is well under the FINA ‘A’ cut of 4:10.57.

Melverton was actually faster earlier on in the season, setting a best time of 4:03.43 at the New South Wales Championships this March. That being said, she was also sick during trials, which is a likely explanation for why she added time. Assuming that she has recovered in time for Worlds, we have the potential to see her live up to her March performance and go faster, taking advantage of Titmus’s absence.

With so many strong contenders, the fight for a spot on the podium could be an incredibly competitive one.

Don’t Count Them Out

After mentioning the swimmers representing freestyle-dominant countries like the United States, China, Australia, and Canada, only two 400 free Tokyo finalists remain: Isabel Gose and Erika Fairweather. Both of these swimmers are slated to compete in Budapest for their respective countries, so expect them to be in the mix for the final.

Gose, the German record holder, clocked a time of 4:03.21 in the Tokyo prelims. She then added time and went 4:04.98 to finish sixth in the finals, although she bettered that mark this year at the 2022 Stockholm Open, setting a season-best time of 4:05.55. Something similar happened to Fairweather, who set a New Zealand national record of 4:02.28 in the prelims, but then finished eighth in the final, almost six seconds slower in 4:08.01.

The Japanese duo Miyu Namba and Waka Nibori both placed outside the top 10 in Tokyo, but went 1-2 at Japanese Trials in times of 4:05.25 and 4:06.54, respectively, to put themselves in the finals discussion. For Namba, her trials race was a huge breakout swim, as it was nearly eight seconds faster than her 4:13.49 from when she finished 20th at the Olympics.

Aside from Titmus, some notable absences from the 400 free include Tokyo’s seventh-place finisher Paige Madden, who pulled out of this race at U.S. trials due to her struggle with Hashimoto’s disease, and ninth-place finisher Tamsin Cook who was a no-show in the event at Australian trials.

Despite the world’s #1 swimmer in the event not being here, we are still in for an incredible race with the potential for history to be made.

SwimSwam’s Picks:

Place Swimmer Country Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Katie Ledecky United States 3:59.52 3:56.46
2 Summer McIntosh Canada 4:01.59 4:01.59
3 Li Bingjie China 4:03.63 4:01.08
4 Leah Smith United States 4:03.15 4:00.65
5 Tang Muhan China 4:01.95 4:01.95
6 Lani Pallister Australia 4:02.21 4:02.21
7 Erika Fairweather New Zealand N/A 4:02.28
8 Kiah Melverton Australia 4:03.43 4:03.43

Dark Horse: Merve Tuncel, Turkey- The 17-year-old finished 19th at the Olympics in a time of 4:11.06, but her winning time of 4:06.25 from the 2021 European Junior Championships shows how high her ceiling really is. At that same meet, she also won the 800 and 1500 free titles, making it a complete distance sweep. This year could be Tuncel’s chance to shine on the senior level.

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AnEn
5 months ago

My prediction:
Ledecky
McIntosh
Li
Pallister
Smith
Gose
Fairweather
Tang
Melverton

Namba
Fabian
Kobori
Kesely

Stephen
5 months ago

Will be interesting to see Psych sheet ……..On what events SM swims.

Sherry Smit
Reply to  Stephen
5 months ago

Guessing
200/400/800 FR; 200 FL; 400 IM

Noah
Reply to  Sherry Smit
5 months ago

No 800 fr is my guess

Fean Darris
5 months ago

Gonna be an epic race between Ledecky and McIntosh

Tracy Kosinski
5 months ago

Going with my gut on this one. SM beats KL, breaking Titmus’ WR.

jeff
Reply to  Tracy Kosinski
5 months ago

At some point yeah.. I really doubt this summer though. Maybe in Paris

Tracy Kosinski
Reply to  jeff
5 months ago

Interesting. So, a 15 year old KL cab break the WR, but SM can’t? I think y’all are in denial. There’s a very good chance it could happen.

GOOOOOO SUMMMMER!!!!!!

Troyy
Reply to  Tracy Kosinski
5 months ago

Ledecky didn’t break any WRs at 15.

Fraser Thorpe
Reply to  Troyy
5 months ago

Also Ledecky didn’t have to break a ‘peak Ledecky WR

Tracy Kosinski
Reply to  Troyy
5 months ago

16? Whatever the case, SM stands a chance of doing it at 15.

Smith-King-Huske-Curzan
Reply to  Tracy Kosinski
5 months ago

Katie Ledecky did not break the world record in the women’s 400 meter freestyle until the age of 17. Summer McIntosh has yet to break the 4 minute barrier.

Smith-King-Huske-Curzan
Reply to  Tracy Kosinski
5 months ago

Katie Ledecky did not break the world record in the women’s 400 meter freestyle until the age of 17. Summer McIntosh has yet to break the 4 minute barrier.

Tracy Kosinski
Reply to  Smith-King-Huske-Curzan
5 months ago

So what? Still very possible.

Awsi Dooger
5 months ago

Titmus gave Ledecky the blueprint by flipping in 1:56.99. If Ledecky wants any hope of reclaiming the record she’ll have to take it out even faster than that, even if it means fading late. I’d like to see her risk it, with something like !:56.8. Ledecky is not prone to a massive piano. Even if the 1:56.8 turned into 3:59.8 it’s likely enough.

This event is still stalled and somewhat pathetic behind Titmus and Ledecky. We’ve got to stop touting 4:02 as if it’s impressive or some type of breakthrough. Now that it’s 6 years since Ledecky’s dominant performances in Tokyo we should start seeing a wave of youngsters who laugh a 4 minutes and also make the 800… Read more »

Eddie
5 months ago

I know Leah Smith had an off-year last year, but you know she’s getting Bronze in this race just like she always does

PFA
5 months ago

I agree with the order but I have a better question. Is anyone else going under 4?

Caleb
Reply to  PFA
5 months ago

If McIntosh doesn’k break 4 I’ll eat my swimsuit strings

Joel
Reply to  Caleb
5 months ago

I’ll need a photo. I think you’ll be eating them

Smith-King-Huske-Curzan
Reply to  Caleb
5 months ago

I’ll pass the salt and pepper.

Smith-King-Huske-Curzan
Reply to  Yanyan Li
5 months ago

The Chinese women are always mysterious. You never know what to expect. The women’s 4 x 200 meter freestyle relay proved that last year.

Khachaturian
5 months ago

Li Bingchilling

Last edited 5 months ago by Khachaturian
zachswam
Reply to  Khachaturian
5 months ago

Li Bīngqílín too
(bingqilin = ice cream in mandarin)

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn't the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming through scoring countless dual meets, being a timer, and keeping track of her teammates' best times for three years as a team manager. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in …

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