Shouts From The Stands: Was Ledecky’s Tokyo 200 Free A Fluke?

by SwimSwam Contributors 63

November 16th, 2021 Opinion, Tokyo 2020

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send them to [email protected]

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Kyle Barclay, a former collegiate swimmer that now works in the medical field.

Katie Ledecky’s resume speaks for itself and she needs no introduction. She is one of a select crowd of people that could walk away from an Olympics with two golds, two silvers, and possibly feel slightly disappointed.

Even writing that statement out feels a little ridiculous, but let me give it some context. Leading up to Tokyo 2020, she had put up the second-fastest time in the world in the 200 free, 1:54.40, at the Mission Viejo stop of the TYR Pro Swim Series. Not only was this time #2 in the world, it was also tied with Allison Schmitt as the fastest time ever on US soil, and it was Ledecky’s 2nd fastest performance ever, only slower than the 1:53.73 she won the 2016 Olympic title in. Even if she had just repeated this exact time in Tokyo she would have won bronze.

Now, the argument could easily be made that she just misfired a little at the Olympics but that doesn’t really seem true. In her three other events, she went season-best in all of them, dropping several seconds from trials. Although her longer events did not see a huge improvement, her 400 saw a four-second drop from trials to the Olympics, which seemed like a good premonition for the 200. I know that I can’t be alone in thinking that the 1:55.21 she put up in the final came as somewhat of a surprise. Not only was this slower than the 1:55.11 she went at Trials, but it was also significantly off the 1:53.76 split that she anchored the 800 free relay in (which is actually her second-fastest relay split ever, only trailing the 1:53.74 from Rio).

For some reason, this one swim kept nagging at me, even after the Olympics were long over, and eventually, I decided to engage my favorite hobby of checking swim results. Katie has swum the 200 free at an international meet 6 times in her career: Her finals times in each of these years are below. In addition, I have also included her 800 free relay split and season-best for each corresponding year.

Competition Finals Time Relay Split Season-Best
2014 Pan Pacs 1:55.74 1:54.36 1:55.16
2015 Worlds 1:55.16 1:55.64 1:55.16
2016 Olympics 1:53.73 1:53.74 1:53.73
2017 Worlds 1:55.18 1:54.02 1:54.69 (semis)
2018 Pan Pacs 1:55.15 1:53.84 1:54.56
2021 Olympics 1:55.21 1:53.76 1:54.40

If we look at her finals time we can see that her 2021 performance is actually strikingly consistent with the norm, excluding the 2016 Olympics. In fact, she has gone the exact same time (margin for error .06) in 4 different finals now. The only difference between her 5th place finish in Tokyo, and the 3 other times she has gone this time is the people around her went faster. Another thing to note is that she has only ever gone her season-best in an international final in 2015 and 2016.

So what is the explanation for this? It’s pretty obvious once you think about it for a second. 2016 is the only year in which she didn’t have a double on the day of the 200. The Pan Pacs schedule places the 800 final in between the 200 prelims and finals, and the Worlds/new Olympics all have the 200/1500 double (though it’s the 200 semi-finals).

The truth is even Katie Ledecky can only do so much with a double like that. And it seems like 1:55.15 is about exactly how much she can do. So my nagging instinct was right. She probably could have put up a faster time in that final, but we’ll never know what could have happened with a better schedule.

So what does the future hold? If there’s one thing we know about Ledecky it’s that she is smart. She knows this is going on. The question is, will she keep trying to stretch herself beyond what is possible, or will she make the decision to narrow her program?

If she does narrow her program, will she secede the 1500 to the rising younglings or will she stick to the event in which she is history’s fastest performer by 18 seconds? Personally, I hope she keeps fighting it out in the 200. At this point, Katie doesn’t need more gold medals, and I would love to see what she can really put up in an individual 200 free. Whatever happens, I know she’ll make the right decision for her, and I’m excited to see what happens.

ABOUT KYLE BARCLAY

Kyle Barclay swam collegiately for 3 years at a DIII school and is now happily retired and working in the medical field.

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Crawler
11 months ago

I think she will have more flexibility to adjust her future schedules: in Tokyo, she was the defending champion in the 200, 400 and 800 and being the world record holder in the 1500 she wanted to be the first female swimmer to win gold in the 1500.

I think she will do the 400/800/1500 and the 4×200 relay. That will leave her with plenty of competition which she can’t expect to beat if she doubles some events like 200/1500 while others don’t.

Yozhik
1 year ago

Dear Kyle Barclay, since you made such a good research about Ledecky’s performance at 200fr event you may shed some light on the mystery of Ledecky’s splits in 4×200 relay in Tokyo. If the officially reported her reaction time was indeed 0:72 sec then she swam much faster in this race than a similar one in Rio.
I suspect that there definitely was a mistake since all swimmers at 4th leg in this race were reported having the same reaction time as their teammates who started the relay.
Thanks

Kaf
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

Yeah her actual reaction in Tokyo was .22 seconds

Yozhik
Reply to  Kaf
1 year ago

Thanks. So she was roughly at 1:54.15 = 1:54.3 form. Not bad at all, but the competition became much stronger since Rio: two swimmers swam under 1:54
Honestly speaking she was well prepared for shorter distances in her program in Tokyo. Five years (!) later after competition where personal bests were set she was only 0:3 sec slower at 200 and only 0.7 sec at 400. So there were no basically any decline that could be expected after 5 years. Completely different picture was with her long distance events. The similar situation was observed during her in-season races as well. I got then an impression that she trained with Meehan from 200 and above focusing more on short distances… Read more »

Kaf
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

Honestly I would say trusting her natural 800 1500 ability worked out reasonably well if ones goal is to win

Yozhik
Reply to  Kaf
1 year ago

I have same opinion. Olympic Games are all about medals. Go to the Olympics website. Practically no timing details. Just who won medals.
In contrast with Rio “564” plan, I think that winning medals was the only goal for Ledecky in Tokyo. Training for long distance events were a burden that could affect her sprinting abilities. There were practically no differences between what she swam in-season and what she showed in Tokyo in her long distance program. So I wouldn’t jump into conclusion regarding prognosis of her abilities at long distance events using just her performance at 800 and 1500 in Tokyo.
The only thing that confuses me and that I have no explanation for is her tears… Read more »

Troyy
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

Perhaps the tears were because the 200/1500 double was more problematic for her than people realise.

Georgia Rambler
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

Yes, that surprised me as a woman who doesn’t cry much. Yet even the most controlled person sometimes can’t help letting their true emotions show. My gut feeling is that they were tears of relief. Of course she knew it was asking alot of herself, training hadn’t been as she had hoped and her family wasn’t there. She always gives her best, but this time it may have been harder to be the best. She surely didn’t want to tear up and tried to hide it by putting her goggles back on, but those cameras are relentless. Really felt for her at that moment.

Troyy
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

The official result pdf never reported an 0.72 reaction time. The was a mistake only on the website.

Yozhik
Reply to  Troyy
1 year ago

Is it possible to see this pdf document today? It will be really appreciated if you provide a link. Thanks

Yozhik
1 year ago

Three years is a lot of time for gradually declining with age swimmer. But we do have an example of longevity in the longest swimming event. Friis swam 15:38 at the age of 25. The result that has been standing unbeaten (besides Ledecky) for 9 years already. This gives some hope that 27 years old Ledecky will still remain the leader at this event. But even if Katie stays in good shape her load can happen to be not an issue in Paris 2024. For the first time since 2012 she may need to taper for trials. And domestic competition at 1500 may happen to be very tough excluding this event from Ledecky’s program in Paris. The 800m race that… Read more »

Ledecky will go 3:55 in Paris
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

thank you for the analysis yohzik

Yozhik
Reply to  Ledecky will go 3:55 in Paris
1 year ago

Is it the unknown yet side effect of vaccination that you thanked me? 😀
But I was touched and pleased no even mater if I have missed a sarcasm.

Tim Morrison
1 year ago

I’m sure her new coaches have analyzed her training and performances closely from the last few years and have come up with a plan.
I’d love to know what that is.

Tim Morrison
1 year ago

I wanna say you said the obvious but I won’t!
Good point to be made anyway

Kaf
1 year ago

Obviously if she isn’t breaking world records every month, she’s past it and needs to retire

Kaf
Reply to  Kaf
1 year ago

Not being serious here

Sam B
1 year ago

“At this point, Katie doesn’t need more gold medals”
what is the point where someone doesn’t need more gold medals?

“I don’t need more money”
Nobody, ever

Awsi Dooger
1 year ago

Not a surprise at all. I posted on many sites including here that Ledecky would have one inexplicably poor race in Tokyo. She was fortunate it was this one, where she had the least chance at gold anyway. Actually her 800 and 1500 weren’t much either, but she had the favorable combination of Titmus not fully believing in herself at 800 plus the 1500 with Quadarella sick and Sullivan ridiculously cautious for the majority of the race. Sullivan may applaud her strategy at this age. Eventually she’ll realize she didn’t make a full attempt at her one golden opportunity.

Yozhik
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
1 year ago

I like your Monday morning quarterback logic about missed opportunity by Sullivan at 1500 and Titmus at 800. Haven’t you seen what has happened to Wang who tried to keep up with Ledecky at first half of the distance. Or you may forgot the famous 2012 race in London at 800 where Adlington and Friis were super confident and believed in themselves starting first half with Katie at 4:04 and finishing with ridiculous 4:16 and 4:18 respectively. I wish you were in the pool there in Tokyo to demonstrate how to swim 15:36 and 8:11 against Katie Ledecky.

Ledecky will go 3:55 in Paris
Reply to  Yozhik
1 year ago

You know this is a good take