2023 U.S. World Trials Preview: Ledecky Set for Sixth-Straight World Berth in W. 800 FR

2023 U.S. National Championships

WOMEN’S 800 FREESTYLE

Record Book:

Here we are, once again: A U.S. Nationals/Trials/selection meet where the question surrounding the women’s 400-and-up free events is will anyone rise to challenge Katie LedeckyAt least when we’re discussing the 800 free, the answer is still likely to be no.

KATIE LEDECKY

The women’s 800 free is one of those events where someone simply deserves their own section. Katie Ledecky has dominated this event over the last 11 years to an absurd degree. Since winning gold at the 2012 Olympics at just 15 years old, Ledecky has won the 800 free at every Olympics (2016 and 2020), as well as all five editions of the LC World Championships since then.

Not only has Ledecky remained unbeaten in the event over the course of 11 years now, but she’s also dominated the record book. In addition to holding the World Record in the event, Ledecky holds the 28-fastest performances of all-time in the LC 800 free. She’s the only swimmer in history to have gone under 8:13 in the event, a mark which she’s accomplished 22 times in her career.

For further context, Ledecky’s current 2023 season best of 8:13.56, which is about nine seconds off her career best of 8:04.79, not only leads the world this year, but is also faster than anyone other than Ledecky has ever swum in the event. In short, she’s been an unstoppable force in the 800 free for over a decade now, and that isn’t likely to change this year.

Ledecky enters these Trials as the top seed in the event with a 8:08.04. That puts her in the lead heading into the meet by nearly ten seconds, as Leah Smith is the second seed at 8:17.52. Given all of that, barring what would be one of the most shocking turn of events in swimming history, we can expect Ledecky to win the event next week and advance to the World Championships in Fukuoka.

BEEN HERE BEFORE

28-year-old Leah Smith has long been Katie Ledecky‘s running mate in the 400 free and 800 free. While we could make the case that the 400 free is really Smith’s strongest event, she’s been terrific and has recorded a ton of success in the 800 as well. Some of those accolades include medaling in the 800 free at the 2017 World Championships and 2018 Pac Pacs.

Moreover, Smith is the tenth-fastest performer of all-time in the women’s 800 free and the third-fastest American all-time, behind only Ledecky and the legendary Janet Evans. Smith’s career best comes in at 8:16.33, a time which she swam in April of 2019 at a Pro Swim Series stop in Richmond.

While that personal best is now over four years old, Smith has experienced a bit of a resurgence since moving to train at Longhorn Aquatics in the fall of 2021. Last year (2022), Smith clocked an 8:17.51 in the 800 at the International Team Trials in April. While she would add to that time at last summer’s World Championships, clocking an 8:20.04 for fourth place, Smith’s season mark of 8:17.51 would have been good for silver in Budapest last year. On top of her success in the 800 free last year, Smith also earned bronze in the 400 free at the World Championships, swimming a 4:02.08, which was within 1.5 seconds of her career best in the event. All that is to say Smith showed us last year that she still has more left in the tank and is still capable of producing times on par with her career bests.

Smith enters these Trials firmly seeded second in the 800. Her 8:17.52 from last April is her seed time, making her the only swimmer other than Ledecky seeded under 8:20.

That brings us to the other swimmer who has represented the U.S. on the World stage recently: Katie Grimes. The 17-year-old out of Sandpipers of Nevada punched her ticket to the Tokyo 2020 (2021) Olympics at just 15 years old, taking second with an 8:20.36 in a surprise swim. She would go on to advance to the Olympic final in the event after popping a huge new personal best of 8:17.05 in prelims, but was off that time in finals, taking fourth with an 8:19.38.

Not only is Grimes the fourth-fastest American all-time in the event, she’s the second-fastest American in this decade (2020-present) behind Ledecky. It’s close, as her 8:17.05 is less than half-a-second quicker than Smith’s 8:17.51 from last spring, however, we should also take into account that Grimes was only 15 years old when she put up her time.

This sets up what is likely going to be a battle for second between Smith and Grimes. That’s not to say no one else in the field could break out and grab that second spot on the Worlds roster, it’s simply recognizing that Smith and Grimes are the only two swimmers other than Ledecky in this field who have been under 8:20 in the event, and no one else has really been close.

Given that, let’s take a look at who may have the edge between Smith and Grimes. Where does Smith have the advantage over Grimes? Well, the last time they met on this stage, at last April’s International Team Trials, Smith beat Grimes, and beat her handily, in the 800. Smith came in second at last year’s Trials with her 8:17.52, while Grimes finished in fourth with an 8:22.36, behind teammate Bella Sims, who notably isn’t racing the event this year. The other advantage in Smith’s column is that she’s likely going to be facing the lighter schedule. The 800 is a timed finals event that will take place on the first day of the meet. Smith is only entered in the 800 on Tuesday, whereas Grimes is set to swim the 200 fly as well. If Grimes ends up doing finals of the 200 fly, it means Smith would likely be the fresher swimmer for the 800, which would be an advantage for her.

Now to Grimes. It would be easy to hold her 8:22.36 from last year’s Trials against her, however, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Grimes had an extremely good 2022, earning spots on the Worlds team in the 400 IM and 1500 free, then going on to earn silver medals in both events in Budapest.

Moreover, while she had a “down” year in the 800 last year, Grimes has already been faster than that time this year, having swum an 8:21.87 about a month ago in Irvine. On top of that, Grimes has already clocked lifetime bests in seven LCM events in this calendar year, including the 200 and 400 free. That means Grimes is heading into this meet with a lot of momentum, and her PBs in the 200 and 400 free could indicate she’s arriving in Indy this week with some improved front-end speed for the 800.

Taking all of that into account, especially considering Grimes is still just 17 years old, I believe that Grimes has the advantage here, though, it should be a great race.

BEST OF THE REST

The only other swimmer seeded under 8:30 heading into the meet is fellow Sandpiper Claire Weinstein, 16. Historically thriving most in the middle-distance free events, Weinstein has really started coming into her own in the distance events. She clocked her lifetime best of 8:25.95 in April of this year at the Fran Crippen Swim Meet of Champions. At that same meet, she posted a new PB of 16:09.85 in the 1500 free. Additionally, Weinstein clocked a new lifetime best of 4:06.24 in the 400 free at the Pro Swim Series in Fort Lauderdale back in March. Given the PBs, along with the fact that she’s only 16 years old, Weinstein has to be on the radar as a swimmer who could have a huge breakout swim at this meet.

Jillian Cox out of Longhorn Aquatics is another teenager on an impressive improvement arc. The 18-year-old, who is set to begin her NCAA career at Texas this fall, had an exceptional summer last year, then followed it up with a terrific SCY season, wherein she posted lifetime bests in all seven SCY free events at the Speedo Sectional in College Station in March. Those included particularly noteworthy times of 4:37 in the 500 free and 9:27 in the 1000 free, two events which are especially related to the LCM 800 free. Cox won the women’s 800 free at last summer’s Jr Pan Pacs, posting her lifetime best of 8:30.38, which is the time she’s seeded with at these Trials. Given how well she’s been racing for a year now, Cox seems primed to break 8:30 in the 800 and she’s an excellent candidate to wind up on one of the rosters that are being selected this week.

Next up, we have Indiana’s Mariah Denigan. Coming off a great NCAA season in which she clocked career bests in the SCY 500 free and 1650 free, Denigan is one of the few swimmers in this field who has been under 8:30 in the 800 before. It came quite some time ago, in the summer of 2018, when she was just 15 years old, however, Denigan does have a lifetime best of 8:28.15. While it has been a long time since she posted that time, things are looking very good for Denigan now that she’s at IU. Last summer, she swam her fastest 800 free since her 8:28 in 2018, clocking an 8:31.12. Additionally, she swam lifetime bests in the LCM 400 free (4:11.18) and 1500 free (16:12.44) last summer, which is highly encouraging for her prospects in the 800. Not to be redundant, but Denigan is another one of those swimmers who has a great shot at one of the rosters up for grabs, particularly Pan Ams or the U-23 LEN meet.

Alabama’s Kensey McMahon is another interesting college swimmer in this race. Though Alabama is going through a turbulent period with transfers and coaches leaving, McMahon had a phenomenal NCAA season, swimming career bests in the SCY 500 free and 1650 free. That’s encouraging heading into these Trials because McMahon’s lifetime bests in the LCM 800 and 1500 free are both from 2019, while her 400 free PB is from 2018. She’s been under 8:30 in the 800 before, having swum an 8:28.68 in 2019, but she’s only been 8:35 since then. McMahon didn’t race the event last year, so she’ll be a bit of a wildcard this week.

The youngest swimmer who is set to compete in the fastest heat with finals, Kayla Han is another swimmer to watch. While still just 14 years old, Han has already clocked lifetime bests in the LCM 400 free, 800 free, and 1500 free this year, swimming an 8:32.88 in the 800 free. She has her work cut out for here, however, Han will be a prime candidate for the World Juniors roster in this event.

Rounding out the group of teenagers to watch out for, we have Cavan Gormsen, Michaela Mattes, and Lynsey Bowen. The youngest of the three, Bowen, 15, has emerged as Carmel Swim Club’s most recent up-and-coming star in the past year. She had an exceptional yards season and, more importantly, she’s been on fire in the long course pool this year. At the Indy Spring Cup last month, Bowen clocked her lifetime best of 8:38.53 in the 800 free. She also notably broke 2:00 in the 200 free for the first time in her career, and swam a PB of 4:11 in the 400 free at that meet. Bowen should be looked at as very much live for a World Juniors berth at this meet, it’s just a question of what event(s) she’ll do it in.

Gormsen and Mattes are in very similar places heading into this meet. They have almost identical lifetime bests, with Gormsen having been 8:35.48 and Mattes 8:35.58. Gormsen is the eighth seed, so she’s set to compete in the fastest heat that will swim with finals, while Mattes right now looks like she’ll be the top seed of the early heats on Tuesday afternoon.

SwimSwam’s Top 8 Picks:

RANK SWIMMER PERSONAL BEST SEASON BEST
1 Katie Ledecky 8:04.79 8:13.56
2 Katie Grimes 8:17.05 8:21.87
3 Leah Smith 8:16.33 8:28.23
4 Claire Weinstein 8:25.95 8:25.95
5 Jillian Cox 8:30.38 8:33.36
6 Mariah Denigan 8:28.15 8:54.16
7 Kayla Han 8:32.88 8:32.88
8 Kensey McMahon 8:28.68 N/A

Dark Horse, Paige McKenna (Wisconsin): We would be remiss not to mention Paige McKenna on this preview. McKenna, one of the premier distance swimmers in the NCAA currently, is seeded with a yards time for this meet. While McKenna hasn’t experienced the same level of success in the LCM distance events as she has in yards, she’s such a threat in yards swimming, she absolutely deserves to be mentioned as someone to watch. McKenna has a lifetime best of 8:38.37, which she swam back in 2019, when she was 16. She didn’t race the event last summer, so we haven’t yet gotten a good sample of her LCM distance racing since joining Wisconsin in 2021. She’ll be racing in an early heat, but it  really wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see her land on one of the international rosters that are being selected out of this meet.

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Stuffed Up Sam
9 months ago

Is Lia Thomas competing? Where has she been?

Not-so-Silent Observer
Reply to  Stuffed Up Sam
9 months ago

Unless this is a trolling question. World Aquatics (formerly FINA when it passed the ruling) has banned all trans women from being eligible to compete at international competition.

So that has effectively ended Lia’s career goals

Kevin
Reply to  Not-so-Silent Observer
9 months ago

Lia is also in Law School and as far as I know never really gave the impression she intended to compete internationally even if eligible

Hswimmer
Reply to  Kevin
9 months ago

That ncaa was just for shits and giggles

Andrew
Reply to  Hswimmer
9 months ago

Not for the girls he “beat”.

Marklewis
9 months ago

Grimes told Sims, “I got this” so Sims dropped this event.

So go with Grimes.

Swimfan27
9 months ago

Do we think Grimes will swim the 200 fly at trials this week? I don’t see why she would, to be honest, considering how much of a lock Regan and Hali seem to be for it.

jess
Reply to  Swimfan27
9 months ago

I do wonder if she only swims in the heats to get rid of “first race jitters” given she has had some trouble at the last 2 trials with her first event of the meet.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  jess
9 months ago

Based on the seeding, there is no guarantee Katie Grimes will qualify for the final of the 200 FL.

Not-so-Silent Observer
9 months ago

Based on the latest interview with Sullivan, I think Leah will be even better than last year.

In season times mean less as you get older since tapers become more impactful when recovery is slower under the heavy training elite swimmers undergo.

With that said, I think the race for 2nd will be incredibly close between Grimes and Leah. Could go either way

Last edited 9 months ago by Not-so-Silent Observer
Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
9 months ago

I got my picks in for the vaunted 100th place finish. I know the men’s picks will doom my chances at glory.

P.S. Picking Andrew over Dressel in the 50 FL, 50 FR marks the beginning of end of USA Swimming.

john26
9 months ago

Adlington’s best 400 when she swam 8:14.1 in the 800 was 4:02.2.

Friis’ best in the 400/800 were 4:03.9/8:15.9

Evans was 4:03.8/8:16.2

Wang Jianjiahe was 4:03.1/8:14.6

… I think there’s plenty example of ~4:03 swimmers that swim 8:14 – 8:16 in the 800free that those 400free and 800free efforts are roughly equivalent for athletes that can places equal efforts on both and are equally talented in the two.

By extension, it feels that 4:00.00 roughly converts to something in the 8:10-8:12 range (which is just an matter of doing the subtraction and some conservative multiplication) and probably something on the faster end of that range.

Given that Katie Grimes was 8:21 a few weeks ago and was off her… Read more »

Sub13
Reply to  john26
9 months ago

I don’t think comparisons like this hold up given the small sample size. Especially your assertion that a 4:00 means an 8:10 is possible. Eight women have been 4:00 or better and only one of them has been below 8:13 mid.

I expect Katie Grimes to take off in distance over the next year or so but it has nothing to do with her 400 time.

john26
Reply to  Sub13
9 months ago

I think the reality that that most of them have targeted the 400 over the 800 out of preference. Titmus, McIntosh, and Pellegrini are clear examples of this. To show that 4:03 <> 8:14-8:16 equivalence above, I purposely chose athletes that generally emphasized the 400m and 800 equally to show that athletes to do emphasize them equally and are equally talented in the 2 events generally fall into that range of outcome (and that there are many athletes falling into this bucket).

Sub13
Reply to  john26
9 months ago

You can get a little creative with statistics but I think you’ve pushed it a little far. You’re ignoring 7 women that fit your criteria perfectly but disprove your theory, and instead taking 3 women that don’t fit your criteria and extrapolating heavily to try to fit your theory.

I think there’s just too much variance between swimmers to come up with an accurate conversion from 400 to 800.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  john26
9 months ago

Katie Ledecky basically even split (4:03.22, 4:03.46) the 800 FR at the Arena Pro Swim Series in Austin, Texas.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbS3u8LrYfw

As for Katie Grimes, a realistic even split would along the lines of 4:08, 4:08 in the 800 FR based upon the results of the heats in the 800 FR at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics.

Last edited 9 months ago by Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Lisa
Reply to  john26
9 months ago

Maybe in the next two years she could get under 8:13 but I would be surprised if she gets under 8:10.

Fish
9 months ago

Time predictions for ledecky
200 fr – 1:54.7
400 fr – 3:58.9
800 fr – 8:10.0
155 fr – 15:41.2

Fish
Reply to  Fish
9 months ago

At worlds
200 Relay split 1:53.4
400 Free 3:57.5 ( silver )
800 Free 8:08.9 ( Gold )
1500 Free 15:27.6 ( Gold)

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Fish
9 months ago

Predictions for Katie Ledecky at the 2023 Phillips 66 National Championships:

Worse Case Scenario
200 FR – 1:54.88
400 FR – 3:58.86
800 FR – 8:11.00
1500 FR – 15:34.23

Lisa
Reply to  Fish
9 months ago

In 1500 I think she gets below 15:40.

Sherry Smit
9 months ago

I hate to say this, because Leah Smith is such an inspirational and awesome athlete, but I don’t see her making the world championship team this year. Last year was a bit of a water down worlds, and a lot of big names were out of US trials. Smith had an advantage last year, however, this year I see things being a little bit different. She could prove me wrong, but her in season times are not even close to what she was in either 2021 or 2022 in season.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Sherry Smit
9 months ago

Who was out from the US Trials last year?