2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Previews: Battle for Second Brewing Behind Ledecky in the 800 Free

2024 U.S. OLYMPIC TRIALS

WOMEN’S 800 FREESTYLE – BY THE NUMBERS

  • World Record: 8:04.79, Katie Ledecky (USA) – 2016 Olympic Games
  • American Record:  8:04.79, Katie Ledecky (USA) – 2016 Olympic Games
  • U.S. Open Record: 8:06.68, Katie Ledecky (USA) – 2016 Pro Swim Series, Austin
  • World Junior Record: 8:11.00, Katie Ledecky (USA)
  • 2021 Olympic Champion: Katie Ledecky (USA), 8:12.57
  • 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials Champion: Katie Ledecky, 8:14.62
  • 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Cut: 8:45.79
  • 2024 Olympic Qualifying Time (‘A’ Cut): 8:26.71

A Small Disclaimer

Let’s get one thing clear: this race is all Katie Ledecky. Since her debut at the 2012 Olympic Games almost 12 years ago, Ledecky has been almost unstoppable in this event. Over that time span, Ledecky’s resume in just the 800 freestyle could be amongst the greatest swimming careers of all-time: 

Katie Ledecky’s 800 Freestyle Resume: 

  • 3x Olympic Champion (2012, 2016, 2021)
  • Current World Record Holder (8:04.79, 2016 Olympic Games) which also stands as the Olympic Record
  • 6x World Champion (2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2022, and 2023)
  • Only swimmer to win the same event at 6-consecutive World Championships
  • Holds the 16 fastest 800m freestyle times ever and 28 out of the top 29 times

In addition to the accolades listed above, until January of this year when Canadian Summer McIntosh threw down a monster 8:11.39 at the Southern Zone Sectional Championships, Ledecky had not lost a 800 freestyle final since 2010. She still hasn’t lost a 800 freestyle final to an American since 2010. Meaning that unless McIntosh suddenly decides to change her citizenship between now and the start of Trials, Ledecky should be a lock to qualify for her 4th straight Olympic Games in this event. 

The Race for Second Place

Given that Ledecky is almost untouchable, the race for second should have plenty of drama with several notable contenders. 

Katie^2

World Aquatics Championships
Fukuoka (JPN)
14-30 JULY 2023

At the 2021 US Olympic Trials, 15-year-old Katie Grimes had a surprising race in this event to claim a spot on the Olympic Team. After qualifying 8th to the final in a personal best of 8:31.73, Grimes went all-out in the final, taking the race out with Ledecky and holding on to post a massive 11 second drop off of her prelims swim, touching the wall in a time of 8:20.36. Though she had been on people’s radar at the time, many compared her gusty swim to that of Ledecky herself back in 2012. Grimes went on to finish 4th at the Olympic Games, just missing out on the podium. 

Since then, Grimes has established herself as one of the top US distance swimmers, becoming the first American to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games via her bronze medal in the 10km open water swim at the 2023 World Championships. However, it is notable to mention that while Grimes has expanded her repertoire in recent years, she has yet to match her 2021 speed in the 800 freestyle, missing the 2022 and 2023 World Championship teams in the event. She was slated to race the event at the 2024 World Championships, but pulled out of the pool competition all-together, opting just to focus on open water. 

Given that she is already qualified for the Olympics, it’s hard to tell just how rested Grimes will be at Trials. Plus, she will have a pretty busy schedule at the meet, likely including the 200 free, 400 free, 1500 free, and 400 IM in addition to this event. Despite this, Grimes has to be the early leader for the second spot as she holds the #2 time in the country this season with her 8:21.51 from the Fran Crippen Meet. 

Veterans Coming to Play

2016 Olympian Leah Smith is looking to make a rebound after narrowly missing the team in 2021. Smith, who was considered a favorite to qualify for the team in this event in 2021, finished 6th in this race at the 2016 Olympics. At the 2021 Olympic Trials meet, Smith struggled across all of her events, missing the finals of the 800 freestyle all-together by finishing 10th out of prelims. Following that defeat, Smith came back stronger than ever in 2022, storming to a time of 8:17.52 at the US International Team Trials, her fastest time since 2019, to qualify for the 2022 World Championships.

Though Smith has only been 8:38.90 this season, sitting well back in the US rankings, it’s easy to see that she has a lot of room to move up. Her time from the 2022 Trials meet currently stands as the 2nd fastest time from an American since 2021, only behind Ledecky. In fact, it stands nearly 2 seconds ahead of anyone else in the field, minus Ledecky, putting her in a great position to pursue another Olympic berth. 

Another veteran to watch out for is Paige Madden. Like Smith, Madden swam collegiately at the University of Virginia. During the 2021 season, Madden had a major breakout in short course, setting herself up for a fantastic Trials meet that culminated in an Olympic berth (and eventual silver medal) in the 4×200 freestyle relay and an individual berth in the 400 freestyle. At the 2021 Olympic Trials, Madden only finished 13th in this event, the only event that she did not qualify for a final in. However, since then, she has shown a lot of growth, posting a best time of 8:27.64 back in January. Just last week, Madden threw down a best time of 4:03.02 in the 400 freestyle, showing her top form just a few weeks shy of the big show. 

Ashley Wall (formerly Twichell) did not contest this event at Olympic Trials in 2021, but seems to be targeting it this time around. Since the 2021 Olympic Games, where she competed in Open Water, Wall has gotten married and had a child. However, nothing has stopped the new mom from having an impact in the pool as she currently ranks 10th nationally in this event this season with her 8:36.97 from the Eastern Zone Spring Championships. Wall’s best time stands at 8:25.31 from 2016, but the veteran should not be counted out as a threat to make the final.

Though not really a “veteran” by traditional standards, Mariah Denigan has already earned an Olympic berth in the open water events, putting herself amongst the top swimmers in the world. Denigan is only seeded 13th here with her best time of 8:34.93. However, given the fact that she already has a trip to Paris booked, Denigan might take some risks here and could push herself to a major performance.

Youth Invasion

Like Ledecky in 2012 and Grimes in 2021, there are multiple rising age-group stars who could set themselves up for big drops in this event to make a surprising appearance in the Trials finals or find themselves on the Olympic team. 

As members of the 2023 World Championships team, technically neither Claire Weinstein nor Jillian Cox can truly be considered “rising stars” but both swimmers have youth on their side. 

Despite finishing only 34th in this event at the 2021 US Olympic Trials meet, Weinstein has come a long way in a short amount of time, especially after moving to train with Grimes at the Sandpipers of Nevada in 2022. At only 15-years-old, Weinstein was the youngest member of the 2022 World Championships team via her qualification in the 200 freestyle. At Worlds that year, she went on to win a gold medal as a member of the 4×200 freestyle relay, splitting a crucial 1:56.71 on the opening leg of the race. Since then, Weinstein has only improved her times across all of her events, including a personal best of 8:21.00 in the 800 freestyle that she posted at the 2023 US National Championships en route to a 3rd place finish, just missing a spot on the World Championship team in the event. Weinstein has already been as fast as 8:23.73 this year, putting herself 3rd in the country entering Trials. 

Cox has also seen a huge surge in her times since the last Olympic Trials meet. At the 2021 Trials meet, Cox posted a time of 8:47.77 to place 23rd overall in the event. However, she had a breakout season in 2022, moving herself up the ladder in this event significantly with a 6th place finish at the US International Team Trials, swimming a personal best 8:33.83. By the time that the 2023 US Nationals had rolled around, Cox had established herself as a contender for her first World Championships team, and she did not disappoint, delivering a runner-up performance in the 800 with a huge PB (8:20.28) to make the team. At Worlds, Cox held on for a 6th place finish, dropping even more time off of her best, to establish her lifetime best of 8:19.73. This season, Cox’s fastest time stands at 8:27.95, a great indication that she could have another big drop in store. Prior to her breakout swim at Nationals last year, Cox’s season best was nearly 8 seconds slower (8:33.36). 

Former Sandpiper and current Florida Gator Bella Sims appears on the initial psych sheet for this event, entering the meet as the 9th seed with a 8:29.85. Over the last 4 years, Sims has established herself as one of the top mid-distance swimmers in the country, and has continued to strengthen her repertoire with several other races in the process. In fact, Sims is currently entered in a whopping 11 events on the initial psych sheets for Trials. Thus, it is difficult to see if she will keep this event on her schedule, especially considering that she did not race the event at the 2023 US National Championships nor has she raced yet this season. 

Kayla Han enters the race as one of the youngest competitors in the field. Han, who just turned 16 at the end of last month, enters as the 8th seeded swimmer with a lifetime best of 8:29.66, putting herself perfectly in the position to make the final. Despite her young age, Han has plenty of experience under her belt. She was the youngest swimmer to qualify for the 2021 Olympic Trials, just turning 13 before the start of the competition. Han also gained valuable international experience at the senior level, representing the US at the 2024 World Championships last winter, where she swam the 800 free, 1500 free, and 400 IM. Of all of the swimmers in this field, Han might have the highest ceiling, especially if history repeats itself. 

Kate Hurst is another age-grouper who could see some big drops at Trials. Last summer, Hurst dropped a time of 8:34.11 at Junior Nationals to finish 3rd in this event. Though she hasn’t dropped any time since then, Hurst had a big short course season that saw her post personal bests in a majority of her events, meaning that a taper could bring her some free speed.

NCAA Stars Looking for a Chance to Shine

With so many age-groupers overtaking the ranks in this event, it’s easy to forget about the depth of the NCAA distance field. Rachel Stege didn’t even qualify to swim this event at the 2021 Trials meet. However, she now enters the 2024 Trials meet seeded 8th. Stege had her first opportunity to represent the US internationally last fall at the 2023 Pan American Games, where she took full advantage of the chance, dropping a huge PB of 8:28.50 in the 800 free to win a silver medal. 

Though she hasn’t competed in many long course races this season, Cavan Gormsen finished 5th in the 500 freestyle at the NCAA Championships, dropping a personal best 4:35.37 in that race following a big first NCAA season at Virginia. She enters Trials with the 12th seed in the 800, holding a best time of 8:34.38 from last summer’s Junior National Championships. 

Perhaps one of the bigger stories to come out of this NCAA season, Stanford’s Aurora Roghair had a major breakout at the NCAA Championships posting a large personal best in the 1650 freestyle to place 2nd (15:41.11). She kept that momentum going into the long course season, posting personal bests in the 200, 400, and 1500 freestyle at the Trojan Invite, placing herself as “one to watch” at Trials. Though Roghair didn’t swim the 800 at the Trojan Invite, she also dropped a personal best of 8:35.42 in that event earlier in the season at the Pro Swim Series in San Antonio. Given that her times from the Trojan invite were much faster than her times from San Antonio, it seems reasonable that she could be in for another large drop in the 800. 

The Verdict

While Ledecky has this race under wraps, the race for 2nd will be the true race to watch. While Grimes has a lot of momentum on her side and confidence from already having her ticket to Paris booked, I think that Cox’s recent success will help push her past this field. I could very easily see a situation in which there ends up being less than a second separating the 2nd through 5th place finishers. 

Top 8 Picks:

Rank Swimmer Season Best Personal Best
1 Katie Ledecky 8:12.95 8:04.79
2 Jillian Cox 8:27.95 8:19.73
3 Katie Grimes 8:21.51 8:17.05
4 Claire Weinstein 8:23.73 8:21.00
5 Leah Smith 8:38.90 8:16.33
6 Aurora Roghair 8:35.42 8:35.42
7 Kayla Han 8:34.54 8:29.66
8 Paige Madden 8:27.64 8:27.64

Dark Horse Pick: Lynsey Bowen – Bowen is another youngster who could easily find her way into the final if she hits her taper properly. With a lifetime best of 8:33.71 from 2023, Bowen enters the meet as the 10th seed. She also recently posted a personal best in the 200 freestyle and 400 IM, showing that she is on peak form ahead of Trials. 

 

 

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Tani
11 days ago

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect at the Olympics Katie will get a bronze in this event.

Sherry Smit
12 days ago

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that I actually think Kayla Han is going to get second with a huge drop, and let me tell you why.

Improvement Curve:
2021: 8:50
2022: 8:35
2023: 8:29

She has this improvement curve like no other athlete in this field, and has the youth on her side. She’s also been training with Carmel Swim Club, and seems to have found her calling in the longer distance freestyle events. She has the experience of being in an international final (2023 world jr’s), and worlds experience (2024 worlds). I think it’ll be a race against her, Weinstein, and Grimes, but I think given her history of fighting… Read more »

LBSWIM
Reply to  Sherry Smit
11 days ago

I see her maybe going 8:22ish to finish 5th or 6th.

Geez
12 days ago

Maybe a dark horse who drops ten seconds to make the spot!

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
12 days ago

Can’t wait to see the Olympic taper from the Sandpipers of Nevada.

Holden Caulfield's 400 IM
12 days ago

Nostalgic for that 2021 moment, it would be wild to watch Grimes get out-Grimesed by an upstart teenager in an outside lane in the final who steals the 2nd spot.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Holden Caulfield's 400 IM
12 days ago

Are you calling Claire Weinstein an upstart teenager?

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
12 days ago

As for Katie Ledecky, stick to the race plan from the 2015 World Aquatics Championships.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=4QLRLeOeq3w&si=bbYs6VA-SItiG7y8

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
11 days ago

Splits – 29, 30, 30.75 x 6

100 m – 0:59.00
200 m – 2:00.50
300 m – 3:02.00
400 m – 4:03.50

WV Swammer
12 days ago

Going on a limb here and saying Katie Ledecky is prolly gonna win this one (potentially controversial, I know)

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  WV Swammer
12 days ago

I can envision Katie Ledecky’s time within a half of a second to the 2016 USA Swimming Olympic Team Trials.

Andysup
12 days ago

Katie Grimes has to be considering that the open water events only have a 50% chance of actually happening. So if she wants to actually compete at this Olympics she might need the 800 or 1500 free.

Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
Reply to  Andysup
12 days ago

Katie squared are the only two female swimmers that have met the OQT (16.09.09) in the W 1500 FR during calendar year 2024.

WahooSwimFan
Reply to  Andysup
11 days ago

The risk for Grimes is that if weather cause pollution in the venue, the date of competition may be shifted and could conflict with the swimming races.

chickenlamp
Reply to  WahooSwimFan
11 days ago

Open water is after pool swimming, so even if it gets delayed it won’t interfere with the pool. Could mess up her taper though.

About Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller

Nicole has been with SwimSwam since April 2020, as both a reporter and social media contributor. Prior to joining the SwimSwam platform, Nicole also managed a successful Instagram platform, amassing over 20,000 followers. Currently, Nicole is pursuing her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After competing for the swim …

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