2024 Olympic Previews: Is Ledecky’s Throne Under Attack In The Women’s 800 Free?

2024 Paris Summer Olympic Games

By the Numbers: Women’s 800 Free

  • World Record: 8:04.79 – Katie Ledecky, United States (2016)
  • World Junior Record: 8:11.00 – Katie Ledecky, United States (2014)
  • Olympic Record: 8:04.79 – Katie Ledecky, United States (2016)
  • 2021 Olympic Champion: Katie Ledecky, United States – 8:12.57

Continuing Her Reign

Katie Ledecky has been the queen of the 800 freestyle for over a decade, with hardly any competitors coming remotely close to dethroning her since her Olympic debut in the event in 2012.

Not only is she a three-time Olympic champion in the event, Ledecky is also a six-time world champion in the 800 and the only swimmer to ever win the same event at six consecutive World Championships. Aside from her impressive medal haul, Ledecky holds the 16 fastest times of all time and 24 out of the 25 top times, and until February of this year, she had been undefeated in the event since 2010.

Katie Ledecky – courtesy of Simone Castrovillari

While Ledecky was handed her first loss in the 800 in over a decade by Canadian Summer McIntosh at the Southern Zone Senior Championships earlier this year, knocking her down to #2 on the world ranking for 2024, she remains the strongest competitor heading into the Olympics. McIntosh did not contest the 800 free at the Canadian Swimming Trials, meaning Ledecky will enter the Games with the fastest time in the field.

Since her runner-up finish behind McIntosh, Ledecky has lowered her season best to a time of 8:12.95, just half a second off the time that won her the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. She posted a time of 8:14.12 at Trials in June, but Ledecky has a history of dropping time in this event between Trials and the Games; she typically does not need to swim too fast at the U.S. Olympic Trials in order to qualify.

Ledecky’s Past Olympic Time Drops

Year Trials Time Olympic Games Time
2012 8:19.78 8:14.63
2016 8:10.32 8:04.79
2021 8:14.62 8:12.57

Ledecky will undoubtedly be looking to defend her Olympic title and hold onto her crown as the queen of the 800, and with McIntosh out of the way, she looks to be in a good position to do just that.

The Threat from Down Under

Australia’s Ariarne Titmus will likely be one of the biggest contenders for the gold in Paris. She was the runner-up behind Ledecky at the Tokyo Olympics, touching less than half a second behind her in a time of 8:13.83, and has been a constant fixture at the top of the world rankings in the years since.

Ariarne Titmus – 
courtesy of Fabio Cetti

Titmus has also been remarkably consistent with her swims each year, tending to post her best performances in the 800 around July or August. She lowered her personal best to a time of 8:13.59 at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, only to replicate the exact same time one year later at the World Championships in Japan.

In 2023 Titmus was ranked #3 in the world behind China’s Bingjie Li and Ledecky; while she still sits in the #3 spot this year, she surpassed Li and now has only Ledecky and McIntosh ahead of her. With McIntosh out of the running for the 800 at the Olympics, Titmus may have an even greater chance at securing an Olympic title in the event.

At the Australian Swimming Trials in June, Titmus was just narrowly off her lifetime best, winning the 800 in a season best time of 8:14.06. She was clearly in top form at the meet, as she also broke the world record in the 200 free. While it remains to be seen if that form will carry over into the Olympics themselves, Titmus is sure to be a top contender for the podium and possibly even the gold.

Pushing for the Podium

While few swimmers can hold a candle to Ledecky and Titmus’s consistent domination in the 800 over the years, there is no shortage of competitors who will be vying to earn a spot on the podium and bring home an Olympic medal.

Simona Quadarella – courtesy of Len European Aquatics

One of the top contenders for a podium finish will likely be Simona Quadarella. The Italian star will be racing the 800 free at her second straight Olympic Games, having won bronze in the event in 2021. Quadarella has inched her way up the global rankings over the last three years, with her season-best time of 8:17.44 trailing only Titmus and Ledecky heading into Paris. Quadarella posted the high ranking time when she took home the gold at the World Championships in February

Quadarella has not approached her personal best time of 8:14.99 since setting it back in 2019, but her season best this year is slightly faster than what she posted in the final in Tokyo, meaning that if she can stay consistent with that time then she should be in a good spot for the final.

Team USA’s second representative Paige Madden will be one to keep an eye on in Paris. Madden saw a sizable time drop at the U.S. Olympic Trials, chopping nearly seven seconds off of her best when she posted a time of 8:20.71. The performance bumped her up to #7 in the world for the 2024 season so far and showed tremendous improvement from where she was just six months ago when she established her previous best time.

However, given that she was clearly at peak form to qualify for the Olympics, it may be hard to replicate that performance with just over a month in between. Provided that Madden stays consistent, she should be able to land herself in the final; if she can continue to build upon her recent improvements, then she may be able to shoot for the podium.

Australia’s Lani Pallister will also be making a play for the podium. Paris will mark Pallister’s Olympic debut, as she missed out on qualifying in 2021, but she is poised to be right in the heart of the competition with all of the veterans.

Her performances in the 800 free have been on an upward trajectory over the last year, lowering her personal best time twice in short succession back in October to post a time of 8:15.11. The performance made her the 4th-fastest person in the world in 2023 and the 8th all-time top performer in the world.

Pallister turned in a time of 8:18.46 to take second behind Titmus at the Australian Swimming Trials, cruising in nearly 12 seconds ahead of the third place finisher and easily qualifying for the Olympics. The decisiveness of her qualification bodes well for her debut in Paris as she gears up for the Games.

Finals Threats

Returning Chinese Olympian Li Bingjie will be looking to make her Olympic breakthrough in the 800 free. Bingjie secured a bronze medal in the 400 free at the Tokyo Games but missed out on the final in the 800 altogether when she placed 10th in a time of 8:22.49.

Bingjie has significantly improved her time since then, posting a personal best time of 8:13.31 at the World Championships last summer and taking second behind Ledecky. However, her most recent performances have dropped off a bit; Bingjie has not swam under an 8:20 since last July, and she turned in a time of 8:25.43 at the Chinese National Swimming Championships. Currently ranked 13th in the world, Bingjie could find herself in the Olympic final this year but will have to drop back down closer to her personal best time in order to secure a spot.

Germany’s Isabel Gose narrowly missed out on making the Olympic final in the 800 in Tokyo, placing 9th overall. The 22-year-old Olympic returner will be looking to rectify that this summer, as she has significantly improved her 800 free since the last Games. In February, Gose took second in the event at the World Championships, posting a personal best time of 8:17.53, which is over four seconds faster than her Tokyo performance.

Although her performance in Doha marked the 5th-fastest time in 2024, Gose’s times in the 800 often dip up and down, with each top swim tending to be followed by a drop off. During her most recent race in May, Gose turned in a time of 8:23.35, showing a dip in her form. Gose will need to make a return to her World Championship form in order to secure a spot in the final this Olympics.

Erika Fairweather – courtesy of Simon Watts/www.bwmedia.co.nz

New Zealand may be poised to propel two swimmers into the final of the 800 free. 20-year-old Erika Fairweather will be racing in her second Olympic Games, although this will be her first time contesting the 800 at the Olympic level. Fairweather established her personal best time of 8:21.06 at the 2023 World Championships, where she placed 8th overall; she went on to bring home a bronze medal in the event at the 2024 championships in Doha. Fairweather has been remarkably consistent with her performances, hovering right around her best time in each of the four races since establishing it. Fairweather posted the 7th-fastest time in the world in 2023 and holds the 9th-fastest time (8:21.67) thus far in 2024.

New Zealand’s other returning Olympian is Eve Thomas, who finished 18th in the 800 in Tokyo. Thomas has lowered her time by over 10 seconds since then, posting a personal best time of 8:22.27 just months ago in April. Thomas took fourth behind Fairweather at the World Championships in Doha and currently sits at #10 in the world rankings for 2024. She has been steadily climbing the world rankings over the last few years, and if she can maintain her recent upward momentum then she may just break into the final in Paris.

Former Russian Olympian turned French swimmer Anastasiia Kirpichnikova will be fighting for a spot in the final in Paris. Kirpichnikova competed for Russia at the Tokyo Games, where she placed 8th in the 800 free with a time of 8:26.30 despite posting a best time of 8:18.77 in the qualifying heats.

Now competing for France, she easily won the 800 free at the French Elite Championships, but it remains to be seen if she can secure herself a spot in the final. Kirpichnikova’s season best this year is a time of 8:26.38, marking a drop off from last season’s best of 8:22.74.

Kirpichnikova has been hovering around the #13 and #14 spots in the world for the last few years since Tokyo, and many of the swimmers ranked ahead of her will be contesting the 800 in Paris. However, the French Elite Championships marked an improvement in her recent times, meaning that if she can continue this momentum and return to top form for the Olympics, she could fight her way into the final.

The Verdict

The 800 free looks like it is shaping up to be a battle between Ledecky and Titmus. While it could go either way, Ledecky has proven herself to be almost unbeatable in this event and seems poised to bring home another gold in the 800. Titmus will certainly be right there with her, but we’ve put Ledecky in for the top spot given her history of dominance in the race and consistency in performances.

SwimSwam’s Picks

Place Name Nation Season Best Lifetime Best
1 Katie Ledecky United States 8:12.95 8:04.79
2 Ariarne Titmus Australia 8:14.06 8:13.59
3 Lani Pallister Australia 8:15.11 8:15.11
4 Simona Quadarella Italy 8:17.44 8:14.99
5 Erika Fairweather New Zealand 8:21.23 8:21.06
6 Isabel Gose Germany 8:17.53 8:17.53
7 Paige Madden United States 8:20.71 8:20.71
8 Li Bingjie China 8:20.01 8:13.31

Dark Horse: Gao Weizhong (China) – At just 16 years old, Gao Weizhong has established herself in the distance freestyle and butterfly events. Although the youngster has yet to bring home an international medal, her personal best time of 8:25.27 in the 800 free made her #15 in the world in 2023. While Weizhong did not hit the qualifying time at Trials, she had previously been under the cut with her 2023 performance and could fill the remaining slot in the event behind Bingjie. Weizhong has only raced the 800 a handful of times, but if she chooses to compete in the event in Paris and can turn in a strong performance, she may not be far off the final.

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2 days ago

I think this all come down to what Ledecky does or doesn’t do. She was clearly not happy with her trials swim in this event. Titmus will probably do a PR but I think if Ledecky just manages a 8:11+, that’ll be enough to secure the win. Any slower. it’ll be a crap shoot. Count on Ledecky doing her best to grind Titmus down in the mid to later part of the race to try not to give Titmus any hope of running her down in that last 50m. I’ll be a great race to watch.

8 days ago

I think titmus will get this one

Na sa
13 days ago

Agostina Hein from Argentina will be a strong contender in Paris. She’s only 16!!!!

13 days ago

KL is the big favorite, but I think it would get scary if Titmus or anyone else senses they are in the hunt near the end of the race. Titmus has a strong mental game and she could surge if it’s close at the end.

It’s so remarkable the winner of this race from 2012 is still even in the conversation at all, not to mention the gold medal favorite.

Reply to  IRO
13 days ago

It’s because it’s Ledecky, she is the GOAT!!!

Reply to  IRO
13 days ago

This. I think Titmus’ best shot a Gold is to keep calm the first 400 (albeit she did not at Aussie Trials, and really hurt coming home) and then utilize her enormous speed coming home the last 100/150 meters.

14 days ago

Her previous “margin of error” has reduced considerably but, with McIntosh not swimming this race, she remains a very clear favourite.

SS podium is a defensible one but one from which I will dissent.

  • Li Bingje at 8th is incomprehensible unless SS has some inside info. I would have her on the podium.
  • One Australian on the podium is a realistic call but two, whilst plausible, is a push when you still have the likes of Li and Quadrella in the picture. Would lean Titmus.
  1. Ledecky 2. Li Bingje 3. Titmus
14 days ago

Titmus´ sweet spot is clearly the 200-400 distances and her training may not focus on the 800; however she is clearly still on an overall positive trajectory performance-wise which in all fairness is hard to state about KL despite her changing training environment to Florida and training with Finke & Co on a daily basis. Titmus could surprise a few of us.

The unoriginal Tim
14 days ago

This would be more exciting if Summer was swimming.

I don’t know if Titmus will do a PB and challenge. She is obviously best at 200/400 but could surprise.

Just Keep Swimming
14 days ago

Interested to see what happens. Ledecky will be the first woman in history going for a fourpeat and go in as heavy favourite. Titmus is much less accomplished at this distance but really goes in with nothing to lose and isn’t expected to win.