Tokyo 2020 Olympic Swimming Preview: Ledecky Hunting for 1st Women’s 1500 Gold

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2020 TOKYO SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Women’s 1500 Freestyle

  • World Record: Katie Ledecky (USA) – 15:20.48 (2018)
  • Olympic Record: N/A
  • World Junior Record: Katie Ledecky (USA) – 15:28.36 (2014)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: N/A

American freestyle superstar Katie Ledecky is looking to make history yet again next week. Ledecky is the top seed in the first-ever Olympic women’s 1500 free, and as the World Record holder, and the fastest woman in history by a a longshot, she’s the favorite heading into Tokyo. The women’s 1500 free is one of three new events added to the Olympic swimming schedule this year, along with the men’s 800 free, and the mixed 4×100 medley relay.

Ledecky set the current World Record of 15:20.48 at a Pro Swim Series in Indianapolis spring of 2018. In addition to holding the World Record, Ledecky has also swum the 11 fastest women’s 1500s of all-time. She’s swum under 15:40 12 times in her career, while only one other swimmer, Denmark’s Lotte Friis, has ever broken 15:40 before, and Friis only did so one time.

While Ledecky is the clear favorite heading into this meet, it should be noted that the schedule is not in her favor for the 1500. On Day 5, Ledecky will have the final of the women’s 200 free at the beginning of the finals session, and the final of the 1500 scheduled to begin approximately 75 minutes later. Adding to the intensity of this double, Ledecky will have to be at the absolute top of her game in order to win Gold in the 200 free. Due to that, the one thing we know for certain is that Ledecky won’t be fresh for the 1500, while everyone else in the final will be.

Now, although that makes things more difficult for Ledecky in the 1500, it’s still not really a cause for major concern. Ledecky already maneuvered the double quite well at US Trials in June, clocking a 1:55.11 in the 200, then turning around and winning the 1500 in 15:40.50. At US Trials there was a 66-minute gap between when Ledecky climbed out of the pool after the 200 free final, and when she dove in for the 1500, and she still was able to post a faster 1500 time than anyone else in the Olympic field has in their respective careers.

That brings us to Simona Quadarella, the Italian distance star who has been competitive on the world stage since 2015, when she was 16 years old. Now 22, Quadarella is the reigning World Champion in the women’s 1500 free. At the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Katie Ledecky fell ill, and had to pull out of the 200 free and 1500 free. Quadarella took full advantage of the Ledecky-less 1500, swimming a huge lifetime best of 15:40.89, which currently is the 17th-fastest swim all-time in the event, and makes Quadarella the #4 performer all-time in the women’s 1500.

Here is the list of all-time top 21 performances in the women’s LCM 1500 freestyle:

Women 1500 Freestyle
Rank Time Name Team Meet Name Meet City Meet Country Date
1 15:20.48 LEDECKY Katie USA Indianapolis PSS 2018 Indianapolis USA 16/05/2018
2 15:25.48 LEDECKY Katie USA 16th FINA World Championships 2015 Kazan RUS 04/08/2015
3 15:27.71 LEDECKY Katie USA 16th FINA World Championships 2015 Kazan RUS 03/08/2015
4 15:28.36 LEDECKY Katie USA 12th Pan Pacific Championships 2014 Gold Coast AUS 24/08/2014
5 15:29.51 LEDECKY Katie USA TYR Pro Swim Series Des Moines Des Moines USA 04/03/2020
6 15:31.82 LEDECKY Katie USA 17th FINA World Championships 2017 Budapest HUN 25/07/2017
7 15:34.23 LEDECKY Katie USA 2014 GU TWST Senior Invitational CISD Natatorium Shanandoah USA 19/06/2014
7 15:34.23 LEDECKY Katie USA 2014 Woodlands Senior Invite Shenandoah USA 19/06/2014
9 15:35.65 LEDECKY Katie USA Arena Pro Swim Series Santa Clara 2017 Santa Clara USA 01/06/2017
10 15:35.98 LEDECKY Katie USA USA Winter National Championships (50m) Atlanta USA 07/12/2019
11 15:36.53 LEDECKY Katie USA 15th FINA World Championships 2013 Barcelona ESP 30/07/2013
12 15:38.88 FRIIS Lotte DEN 15th FINA World Championships 2013 Barcelona ESP 30/07/2013
13 15:38.97 LEDECKY Katie USA 13th Pan Pacific Championships 2018 Tokyo JPN 12/08/2018
14 15:40.14 BOYLE Lauren NZL 16th FINA World Championships 2015 Kazan RUS 04/08/2015
15 15:40.50 LEDECKY Katie USA US Olympic Team Trials – Wave II Omaha USA 16/06/2021
16 15:40.55 LEDECKY Katie USA TYR Pro Swim Mission Viejo 2021 Mission Viejo USA 11/04/2021
17 15:40.89 QUADARELLA Simona ITA 18th FINA World Championships 2019 Gwangju KOR 23/07/2019
18 15:42.23 LEDECKY Katie USA Arena Pro Swim Series – Mesa 2015 Mesa USA 15/04/2015
19 15:42.54 ZIEGLER Kate USA 2007 CA SMC Mission Viejo, CA USA 17/06/2007
20 15:42.92 LEDECKY Katie USA TYR Pro Swim San Antonio 2021 San Antonio USA 03/03/2021
21 15:43.10 LEDECKY Katie USA US Olympic Team Trials – Wave II Omaha USA 15/06/2021

Notably, Quadarella is the only swimmer, other than Ledecky, to crack the top 20 swims all time in the event. Quadarella has been as fast as 15:48.81 in 2021, which makes her the 3rd-fastest swimmer in the event this year. Last week, Quadarella dealt with gastroenteritis, which delayed her flight to Tokyo by a few days. Upon her departure from Italy, she told reporters she was feeling “well”, so it appears the illness hasn’t had much of a long-term effect on her health.

If Quadarella can be at her lifetime best pace, she might be in position to push Ledecky through the end of the race, depending on the shape Ledecky is in following the 1500.

Behind Quadarella, the 3rd-fastest personal best in this Olympic field belongs to China’s Wang Jianjiahe, who swam a 15:45.59 in 2020. Wang, now 18, also swam a 15:46.69 back in 2019, at a Pro Swim Series in Des Moines, USA. This year, Wang was impressive again at Chinese Nationals, turning in times of 15:51.33 (prelims) and 15:49.07 (finals). Having been under 15:50 3 times in her career, including once already in 2021, Wang is someone we should expect to see racing in the final, and is certainly a medal threat.

Wang’s teammate Li Bingjie enters the meet with a 15:58.35, which she clocked at Chinese Olympic Trials in May. Li, just 19, was at her peak (to this point) in 2017 and 2018, having posted times of 15:52.87 and 15:53.80. Beyond 2018, Lididn’t break 16:00 in the 1500 again, until this May. Her 15:58 2 months ago may be an indication that she’s getting back to her top form from a few years ago. If that’s the case, she’s probably still not a medal contender, but definitely could earn a lane for the final.

Australia’s Maddy Gough put on an excellent performance at Australian Trials in June, clocking a personal best of 15:46.13. With that swim, only Ledecky has been faster than Gough in 2021. The swim was a real breakthrough for Gough, marking a 10-second improvement from her previous best. If Gough is able to repeat, or better, her Trials performance, she’ll very likely earn a medal.

The other Australian in the field is Kiah Melverton, who is also racing the women’s 800 free in Tokyo. Melverton swam a 15:57.14 at Australian Trials in June, which was just off her personal best of 15:56.46, which she swam at Australia’s 2019 World Championships Trials. As her times stand now, Melverton is well outside medal range, but she’s another swimmer who stands a very good chance of earning a spot in the final.

Germany’s Sarah Kohler is another swimmer in this field who has been under 15:50 in the 1500 before. At the 2019 World Championships, Kohler posted her best 1500 of her career to this day – 15:48.83. Kohler swam a 15:52.20 at the German Trials in April of this year, putting her 3.37 seconds off her personal best. One more thing Kohler has going for her is that she’s shown us she can show up to race at her absolute best in the highest level international competitions.

The US also has Erica Sullivan representing them. Sullivan swam a lifetime best of 15:51.18 at the US Trials in June, making her the 5th-fastest performer of 2021. She’s also the 2021 US women’s 10k open water national champion, though she won’t be competing in the 10k in Tokyo. Sullivan likes to push the pace early in her races, even keeping close to Ledecky for a large portion of the 1500 at US Trials. The 1500 is Sullivan’s only race in Tokyo, which means she may be one of the freshest swimmers in the field by the time the 1500 rolls around.

Turkish 16-year-old Merve Tuncel clocked a huge personal best of 15:55.23 at the European Junior Championships on July 10th, just about two and a half weeks before she races the 1500 in Tokyo. The swim suddenly made Tuncel a strong contender to make the Olympic final, which would be an exceptional feat for such a young swimmer, especially given the speed of this year’s field.

Russia’s Anastasiia Kirpichnikova enters the meet with a personal best of 15:53.18, which she swam in December of 2020. Kirpichnikova has exploded in the 1500 over the last 2 years, taking her best time from 16:16 to 15:53 from 2019 to 2020. In 2021, Kirpichnikova has posted a 15:58. She’s another swimmer who is largely outside medal contention, but has an excellent shot at returning for the final.

Hungarian 19-year-old Ajna Kesely has a personal best of 15:54.48, which she swam at the 2019 World Championships, when she was just 17. Kesely hasn’t been nearly that fast since her swim at Worlds, although it seems like that may be at least partially be due to the training interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In December of 2020, Kesely swam a 16:34.43 1500, and by the time the European Championships came about in May of this year, she was down to 16:10.50. If it’s in fact the case that Kesely has still been getting back into her top swimming shape, it would stand to reason that we’ll see her swim faster than that 16:10 in Tokyo, but whether or not she gets back down to her 15:54 is another matter.

Italian 30-year-old Martina Caramignoli is also in the mix. Caramignoli swam her personal best in the 1500 last year, at 29 years old – 15:56.06. Having swum her lifetime best just last summer, it’s entirely plausible we see Caramignoli post a sub-16:00 swim in prelims, which may just be enough to get her back for finals.

TOP PERFORMANCES IN 2016-2021 OLYMPIC CYCLE (1 PER PERSON)

  1. Katie Ledecky, USA – 15:20.48 (2018)
  2. Simona Quadarella, ITA – 15:40.89 (2019)
  3. Jianjiahe Wang, CHN – 15:45.59 (2020)
  4. Maddy Gough, AUS – 15:46.13 (2021)
  5. Sarah Kohler, GER – 15:48.83 (2019)
  6. Mireia Belmonte, ESP – 15:50.89 (2017)
  7. Erica Sullivan, USA – 15:51.18 (2021)
  8. Delfina Pignatiello, ARG – 15:51.68 (2019)
  9. Katie Grimes, USA – 15:52.12 (2021)
  10. Bingjie Li, CHN– 15:52.31 (2017)

SWIMSWAM’S TOP 8 PICKS

PLACE SWIMMER COUNTRY BEST TIME SINCE 2016 OLYMPICS
1 Katie Ledecky USA 15:20.48
2 Simona Quadarella ITA 15:40.89
3 Maddy Gough AUS 15:46.13
4 Jianjiahe Wang CHN 15:45.59
5 Erica Sullivan USA 15:51.18
6 Sarah Kohler GER 15:48.83
7 Anastasiia Kirpichnikova RUS 15:53.18
8 Merve Tuncel TUR 15:55.23

Dark Horse – Delfina Pignatiello (ARG) & Mireia Belmonte (ESP): Pignatiello is the 7th seed in this race with her personal best of 15:51.68, which she swam in June of 2019. However, Pignatiello has been quite inconsistent in this event over the last handful of years. In 2017, she topped out at 15:59.51, then in 2018, her fastest time was 16:25.39. She then posted her 15:51 in 2019, then followed that up with a 16:20.78 in late 2020. This year, she’s raced the 1500 once, posting a 16:25.68. If Pignatiello is at her best, she’ll make the final. If she’s not, she’ll probably fall well short of the top 8 in prelims.

Belmonte enters the meet with a 16:02.10, but has a personal best of 15:50.89, which she swam at the 2017 World Championships. She was 26 then, and has struggled to break 16:00 since. At 30, Belmonte has clocked a 16:09.70 in 2021. However, we’ve seen a top-8-worthy performance from Belmonte in this Olympic cycle, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she has a great prelims swim, and gets herself a finals lane. 

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Swimfan
2 months ago

At least the 1500 is the last event on that day compared to world championship were it is less the 30 minutes before the semi of the 200 free.

jim
Reply to  Swimfan
2 months ago

This is worse. It is harder to win the 200 than it is to just be one of the top 8 that qualify got the final.

Yozhik
Reply to  jim
2 months ago

In Kazan Ledecky told that she didn’t feel her legs after first 50m in 200 semi-final. She was 7th at the last turn and only thanks to the laziness of other semi finalists she got the lane #7 in the final with the time 1:56.76
I don’t know what her opinion is on what sequence is easier but can assure you that both of them are hard.
I noticed that at her in-season races at 400, 800 and 1500 she swam very fast her first 200-250m. I didn’t know what kind of practice that was, but now I think she was putting herself exactly under conditions of this double.

Swimingggg
Reply to  jim
2 months ago

In Budapest, she won the 1500m at 17:40 on July 25th with a time of 15:31.82. Then, an hour later, at 18:44 on July 25th, raced the semi-finals of the 200m free, placing first with a time of 1:54:69. That time was actually faster than Pellegrini swam the next day to win the event and Ledecky added time in the finals even though she was fresh.

Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  jim
2 months ago

Katie Ledecky has not won the women’s 200 meter freestyle at a major international competition since the 2016 Summer Olympics. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Robbos
Reply to  Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
2 months ago

I agree, this is the one Ledecky wants, she’s won the rest, this one is history making, IMO the big one 1st winner of Olympic gold in the 1500 & to 3 peat in the 800. She is training for longer distances.

Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Robbos
2 months ago

It’s not without precedence. Katie Ledecky opted out of the women’s 200 meter freestyle at the 2013 FINA World Aquatics Championships (Barcelona, Spain).

Robbos
Reply to  Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
2 months ago

Similar with Phelps swam 200 free in the race of the century in 2004 & came 3rd, came back again won it in 2008, didn’t swim individual again in Olympics as it was his 5th event.
I think 200 free is Ledecky’s 4th event.

AnEn
2 months ago

I am confident that Köhler will go sub 15:40, which should be enough for a medal (probably bronze).

Yozhik
Reply to  AnEn
2 months ago

She hasn’t competed in this event at all this season (at least I haven’t found any records of that). In such situation it is hard to make more or less reliable predictions for the 27 years old long distance swimmer.

Last edited 2 months ago by Yozhik
AnEn
Reply to  Yozhik
2 months ago

She swam 15:52.20 in April, which is 14 seconds faster than at the same time in 2019 (when she went on to swim 15:48.83 at the world championships). She was already qualified in this event, so she had no reason to go all out. I think she focused more on the 1500 free those last 2 years, so i expect a clear PB in the 1500 free and probably no (big) improvement in the 800 free.

Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

I’m reading the all-time top 21 performances and I remember very well that race of Barcelona 2013. Amazing fight between KL and Lotte Friis. I think it was the last time whe had a close 1500 free with the American in the water.
KL deserves to be the first swimmer winning that new olympic event. And the women’s 1500 free deserves to have KL as first olympic winner.

Yozhik
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

Her influence and contributions to the development of strong competition in long distance events is huge. Unfortunately there is no such a thing as the Olympic medal for lifetime achievements. It’s the Sport not Hollywood.

Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

I still believe Katie Ledecky should scratch the women’s 200 meter freestyle and focus on the women’s 1500 meter freestyle. Katie Ledecky’s legacy is the women’s 400 meter freestyle, women’s 800 meter freestyle, women’s 1500 meter freestyle.

Heck, Katie Ledecky does not even own the American Record in the women’s 200 meter freestyle.

Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

Before the last 2 previews (women’s 200 breast and 100 fly) swimswam has predicted so far 9 gold medals for Australia (8 for women and 1 for men) and 10 gold medals for USA (4 for women and 6 for men).

Rio 2016
16 for USA vs 3 for Australia
London 2012
16 for USA vs 1 for Australia
Beijing 2008
12 for USA vs 6 for Australia
Athens 2004
12 for USA vs 7 for Australia
Sydney 2000
14 for USA vs 5 for Australia

Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

I have a feeling swimswam is overly conservative for US this time.
I’m quite surprised US is only picked for bronze in mixed mr, and not to medal in women’s 4×100 fr. It’s also interesting US women are not predicted to win a single medal in IM events, especially after Kaylee McKeown pulled out.

Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Casas 100 back gold in Fukuoka
2 months ago

Hot off the press:

Women’s 200 IM:

Walsh
Pickrem
Wood
Douglass
Ohashi

Women’s 400 IM

Weyant
Flickinger
Hosszu
Ohashi
Willmott

Swimfan
Reply to  Bobo Gigi
2 months ago

Beijing the American women had one of their worst showing in years based on gold medal winning only 2 events (100 back and 2 breast) failed to win a single relay .. and in Beijing it was also morning finals as well

Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Swimfan
2 months ago

Not quite the disaster as was the case at the Athens Olympic Aquatic Centre.

Team USA
Women’s Swimming
2008 Summer Olympics
2G, 7S, 5B for 14 total medals

Team USA
Women’s Swimming
2004 Summer Olympics
3G, 4S, 3B for 10 total medals

Robbos
Reply to  Swimfan
2 months ago

Australia women won 6 gold in Bejing, in their time zone & morning finals just like Tokyo.

commonwombat
2 months ago

Unless Ledecky is way, way off; she’s not losing this one – arguably her safest gold prospect.

Quadrella for silver

Bronze is anyone’s guess. Wang/Gough & Kohler look the most likely but these races often see a bolter gatecrash the podium

Awsi Dooger
2 months ago

I’m convinced women’s distance swimming has been remarkably pathetic as a whole, and we’re about to see exponential improvement as the training methods improve and the women begin to push themselves instead of settling for 15:50 housewife range. Ledecky needs to win this one now because at age 27 in 2024 she’s going to be looking like Janet Evans in 1996, struggling to keep up with younger trimmer more eager competitors. The exponential improvement from the second tier may not happen in 2021. But Olympic Games are notorious for surprises in distance events of all types. Quadarella and others should shoot for 15:35 range. That would force Ledecky to be within her top 8 best all time.

Last edited 2 months ago by Awsi Dooger
Sam B
Reply to  Awsi Dooger
2 months ago

I wouldn’t call it pathetic.

Sam B
2 months ago

the dates in this list top 21 performances in the women’s LCM 1500 freestyle
are all over the place.
2020 Des Moines was in 03/04. Some dates are dd/mm some mm/dd

M d e
2 months ago

This is probably the easiest event to pick on the program, and will be even easier after we see the 800.

Troyy
Reply to  M d e
2 months ago

800 is after the 1500.