Rio 2016 Olympics Preview: Ledecky Not Alone Under 4 in the 4


  • 2012 Olympic Champ: Camille Muffat (FRA), 4:01.45
  • 2015 Worlds Champ: Katie Ledecky (USA), 3:59.13
  • World Record: 3:58.37 | Katie Ledecky (USA) | 8/23/14

Let’s skip ahead a little, past what you’re used to– Katie Ledecky is far and away the favorite to win this event, she will win the gold and break her own world record barring some huge disaster, and so on. Ledecky is an otherworldly swimmer who is going to be great in Rio, perhaps even better than she ever has.

But, is it time for someone else to join her under four minutes (in textile, that is)? Before Ledecky did it, only Italy’s Federica Pellegrini had hit the wall in the 3’s, and that was just once. It was done at the World Championships in Rome in 2009 during the suit era, and Pellegrini has since moved down to the 100-200 range.

When considering textile performances, Americans are the top two performers ever– Ledecky, and rising UVA senior Leah Smith.

Smith, before her steady progressions in long course over the last two years, first made headlines with a 4:33 in the 500 free B final at NCAAs as a freshman with Virginia. That time would’ve been third in the A final, just over a second outside of 1st. 2014 may seem recent, but that was back when Missy Franklin was NCAA runner-up in the 500 free. It feels like ages ago.

As Smith continued to improve in the small pool, she started firing off some increasingly impressive times in the big pool. After a strong freshman year at UVA, she pulled out a 4:06.93 in April after going nowhere near her 2012 best of 4:07.10 for almost two years. Smith then vaulted herself into international recognition with a 4:04.66 at the 2015 World University Games in a new meet record in prelims– she later would win the event in the final.

And, now, after peppering her 2016 season with eight swims under 4:06 (including a 4:03.33 from prelims of the Arena Pro Swim Series stop in Indy), Smith looks to be the silver medal favorite in this event. Her 4:00.65 from the U.S. Olympic Trials was so incredibly impressive, slashing 4.01 seconds off of her previous best from the World University Games, and she now sits less than seven tenths of a second away from that four minute barrier.

So, if anyone is going to join Ledecky under four minutes, it should be Leah Smith. She is incredibly fast in season, and has dealt with the daunting “double taper” while training in the NCAA. It was very striking to see another girl besides Ledecky flip and hit the pad at the 300 mark under three minutes in a 400 free, but Smith (2:59.51) did just that. In fact, she out-split Ledecky (WHAT?!) on the back half as a whole, and was faster on each of the last four 50’s save for a tie at 30.30 on the last 50.

On top of all of that, there are several other medal contenders in this race who have been swimming very well lately. Australia’s Jessica Ashwood broke her own national record in the 800 free at the Santa Clara stop of the PSS with an 8:18.14, going faster than her time at the 2015 World Championships. Though geared more for the 800, Ashwood holds the Aussie record in the 400 free at 4:03.34, the time she clocked in Kazan to win bronze. Ashwood has shown how fit she is this spring, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see her go right past the 4:03 mark in Rio.

Boglarka Kapas (photo: Peter Sukenik)

France’s Coralie Balmy dropped a 4:03.66 at the Sette Colli Trophy in Rome, which ranks #4 in the world this year. Balmy was 6th in the final in London. Canada’s Brittany Maclean broke the national record with a 4:03.84 from Canadian trials, adding another sub-4:04 name to the mix. Sharon von Rouwendaal, who won silver in this race in 2015, has had more success in her career in open water, making the 400 free a relative sprint for her. She has the chops to medal, but with a focus on open water, she may not be able to bring enough speed to earn hardware here.

Hungary has had a national record battle brewing this spring between Iron Lady Katinka Hosszu (who seems to make her way into the conversation about, like, every single event there is) and distance specialist Boglarka Kapas. Hosszu’s 400 free probably sits behind five or so Olympic events in terms of her best races, but she held the national record at 4:05.51 until Kapas smashed it with a 4:03.47 at Euros. Hosszu swam a 4:04.96 just a week later, showing the world that she can do damage in this event. Kapas, though, might be the pick for bronze out of the bunch behind the Americans.

With Kapas, Balmy, Ashwood, and Maclean all under 4:04 this spring, things are looking very packed for bronze. Add Lauren Boyle of New Zealand to that list, who was 4:03.88 last summer, and you’ve got quite the crowd behind the USA.

Place Swimmer Country Best Time (Since 2012 Olympics) Predicted Time in Rio
1 Katie Ledecky USA 3:58.37 3:57.65 WR
2 Leah Smith USA 4:00.65 3:59.96
3 Boglarka Kapas Hungary 4:03.47 4:02.97
4 Jessica Ashwood Australia 4:03.34 4:02.99
5 Sharon von Rouwendaal Netherlands 4:03.02 4:03.26
6 Brittany Maclean Canada 4:03.84 4:03.41
7 Lauren Boyle New Zealand 4:03.88 4:03.90
8 Coralie Balmy France 4:03.66 4:04.15

Dark Horse: Melania Costa Schmid of Spain. She was very strong at the Barcelona World Championships in 2013, swimming a 4:02.47 to earn silver behind Ledecky (which was Katie’s first time under 4:00, by the way). While she was barely under 4:08 at Spanish Nationals, she’ll likely be at 4:05 or better come August.


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King in da norf
4 years ago


bobo gigi
Reply to  King in da norf
4 years ago


4 years ago

I’m VERY curious about the men’s long distance section : 400-1500, there seems to be REAL competition there. Horton, Paltrinieri, Sun, Cochrane, Detti, Guy, Jaeger, Park !!!!

I Can’t recall when the long distance swimming was SO packed !!!

4 years ago

Balmy is my sentimental favorite for bronze because she’s been around so long and in the shadow of Manaudou and Muffat, but she’ll have to have the race of her life to do it.

About Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon studied sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, graduating in May of 2018. He began swimming on a club team in first grade and swam four years for Wesleyan.

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