Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swim Previews: Ledecky an Underdog to Win Women’s 400 Free

Click here to see all of our Tokyo 2020 Olympic Previews.

2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games

Women’s 400 Freestyle

Everyone remembers the 2016 Rio Olympics where USA’s Katie Ledecky was unstoppable in the 200 free, 400 free and 800 free. 

In 2016, a 20-year-old Ledecky won by a margin of 4.7 seconds over Great Britain’s Jazz Carlin, but this year things will not be so easy for Ledecky.

20-year-old Ariarne Titmus of Australia, also known as “The Terminator,” actually tops this season’s world rankings in this event with a 3:56.90 from June. The fastest time Ledecky posted this season was a 3:59.25 from April.

Ledecky was the first woman to ever break 4:00 on the Olympic stage in this event at the Rio Olympics and since then, Ledecky has broken that mark 11 times. Titmus has done it 5 times. 

The world has seen a few close races in this event at the Olympics. Adlington won by .07 seconds over USA’s Katie Hoff in 2008, Helene Madison won over her USA teammate Leore Knight by .01 in 1932, and Germany’s Hase beat Evans by .19 in 1992.

Tokyo 2020 stands to be another historically close race between Ledecky and Titmus. 

We have also seen this World Record fall quite a few times on the Olympic stage, in 1928, 1932, 1972, 1976, 1988, 2016. Titmus’ 3:56.90 trails LEdecky’s World Record, set in 2016, by just about half a second. 

While it is not clear who will break it, that record has a high chance of falling in Tokyo.

There are a few multi-time medalists (Janet Evans, Dagmar Hase, Rebecca Adlington, Lenore Wingard), but only one other swimmer has won gold twice in this event: American Martha Norelius in 1924 and 1928.

Titmus stands between Ledecky and her 2nd gold in this event in Tokyo. No one else entered in the event has broken 4:00 between Rio and now.

I’m going to have to be absolutely at my best form to win with Katie in the field and she’s the reigning Olympic champion so it’s going to be a tough one to get my hand on the wall first,” Olympic rookie Titmus told the Examiner recently.

SwimSwam’s Pick’em entries show that 51.7 percent of voters believe Titmus will win and 48.3 percent have Ledecky winning. Fans have acknowledged Ledecky as the underdog in this race.

It’s important to note that Titmus and Ledecky have not raced each other this season. They have not had this opportunity to push each other to their limits, time-wise. Ledecky has been more quiet on the subject.

This is in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic decreasing international competitions. Also, Ledecky opted out of the International Swimming League and Australia’s travel restrictions during the pandemic also prevented her from competing in the I2020 ISL season.

So far in what appears to be the race for bronze, there are many contenders. 

19-year-old Li Bingjie of China is ranked 3rd in the world this season with a time of 4:02.36 from May, but she posted a 4:01.75 at the 2017 National Games in China. She and Hungary’s Ajina Késely have each posted 4:01’s.

Kesely, also 19 years old, dropped a 4:01.31 at the 2019 World Championships to earn 4th place. While this time makes her the fourth fastest 400 freestyle since Rio, her fastest time this season was 4:07.42 from May.

Bingjie has been at the top of the field in this event for a few years now. She won bronze at the 2017 World Championships behind Ledecky and USA’s Leah Smith.

Russia’s Anna Egorova is set up for a close race with Australia’s Tamsin Cook who placed 6th at the Rio Olympics.

The women’s 400 free field is relatively new to the Olympic stage. It will be the Olympic debut for all swimmers mentioned so far besides Ledecky and Cook.

Cook took an indefinite break from swimming in 2018 after suffering a neck injury in a car crash. She made a comeback in October 2020 and has kept her momentum up since then, posting a lifetime best time of 4:04.10 in June.

At the 2021 European Championships, gold medalist Simona Quadarella of Italy beat silver medalist Egorova by about 1.5 seconds. Egorova took out the race faster but Quadarella had a stronger back half and ended up winning with a time of 4:04.66.

Quadarella has been pretty consistent. Her best time is 4:03.35 from the 2018 European Championships in Glasgow. She departed later than most other swimmers for Tokyo after suffering from gastroenteritis, but she is now in Tokyo and has said she is “fully recovered.”

Paige Madden will join Ledecky in representing Team USA. She is fresh off her lifetime best 400 free swim from the U.S. Olympic Trials Wave II, 4:04.86. 17-year-old Tang Muhan of China is also in the mix after swimming a 4:05.15 in May, but she would likely have to lower that time to make the Olympic final in Tokyo.

Top Performances in 2016-2021 Olympic Cycle (1 Per Person)

  1. Ariarne Titmus (AUS) – 3:56.90 
  2. Katie Ledecky (USA) – 3:57.94 
  3. Leah Smith (USA) – 4:01.29 
  4. Ajna Kesely (HUN) – 4:01.31
  5. Li Bingjie (CHN) – 4:01.75
  6. Jianjiahe Wang (CHN) – 4:03.14 
  7. Simona Quadarella (ITA) –4:03.35 
  8. Sarah Kohler (GER) –4:03.96 
  9. Tamsin Cook (AUS) – 4:04.10 
  10. Anna Egorova (RUS) – 4:04.10 

Top Times in 2020-2021 Season 

2020-2021 LCM Women 400 Free

View Top 26»

Top 8 Predictions

Place Swimmer Country Best Time Since 2016 Olympics
1 Ariarne Titmus AUS 3:56.90 
2 Katie Ledecky USA 3:57.94 
3 Li Bingjie CHN 4:01.75
4 Anna Egorova RUS 4:04.10
5 Simona Quadarella ITA 4:03.35 
6 Ajina Késely HUN 4:01.31
7 Tamsin Cook AUS 4:04.10
8 Paige Madden USA 4:04.86

Dark Horse: Summer McIntosh, Canada – McIntosh blasted a 4:05.13 in May to establish herself as the 12th fastest 400 freestyler in the world this season and fastest 14-year-old in the event in history. While she’s not alone in being an Olympic rookie, she already dropped nearly 10 seconds in total in this event this year. She went from 4:15.43 in early May to her 4:05.13 just 20 days later.

If McIntosh can lower her 4:05 in Tokyo she stands a chance at making the Olympic final. Cook swam a 4:04.36 to squeak into the Rio final as the 8th seed.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Summer Macintosh didn’t swim this event at trials and wasn’t rested for her 4:05 swim I think she’s going to surprise a lot of people!

2 years ago

There’s a case to me made that as she matures, Ledecky is finding it easier to approximate her best in the shorter distances. And certainly Ledecky’s record deserves total respect.

And there’s a chance that the US cheerleaders are right … that Ledecky was not at all rested at trials, that it’s all really been a long term plan, and that she’s about to turn back the clock, reverse the ageing process, and pop out a 3.55.

But there’s probably a bigger chance that it’s a lot of nonsense.

Reply to  Jamie5678
2 years ago

I am not aware of any US cheerleaders saying Ledecky will swim a 3:55, and I do not think that a failure by Ledecky to go under 3:56 would be proof that Ledecky was rested for the trials.

2 years ago

Arnie to start her Tokyo campaign by terminating the 400 field.

Drama King
2 years ago

Gold – Ariarne Titmus – 3.56.09
Silver – Katie Ledecky – 3.57.45
Bronze – Li Bingje – 4.00.75

4. Simona Quadarella – 4.02.96
5. Ajna Kesely – 4.03.44
6. Sarah Kohler – 4.03.86
7. Tang Muhan – 4.04.58
8. Anna Egorova – 4.05.13

Dark Horse – Summer McIntosh

2 years ago

This is one call I REALLY don’t want to make; and that’s something I don’t think anyone of us would’ve been saying 4-5 years ago however the reality has been clear for the past few years that Ledecky is definitely vulnerable in this one.

Its very clear Titmus CAN beat Ledecky over this distance and swim the times. The questions are whether she has her number when it really counts or whether Ledecky can pull out one last big one.

After going back and forth for the past few weeks – Ledecky

2 years ago

anybody that is counting ledecky out is crazy.

2 years ago

Everyone is sleeping so hard on Katie Ledecky

2 years ago

I am sure that Ledecky would always prefer to be the underdog.

About Annika Johnson

Annika Johnson

Annika came into the sport competitively at age eight, following in the footsteps of her twin sister and older brother. The sibling rivalry was further fueled when all three began focusing on distance freestyle, forcing the family to buy two lap counters. Annika is a three-time Futures finalist in the 200 …

Read More »