In February of 2012, Katie Ledecky emerged onto the scene in the 800 meter freestyle when she scorched her field at the Missouri Grand Prix with a scintillating time of 8:30.14. Already a National Age Group Record holder in the 500 and 1000 freestyles in short course, Ledecky’s emergence in long course foretold her rise to dominance on the international scene. As a 14 year old, the time was the second fastest all-time for the 13-14 age group, just behind a legendary record by Cynthia Woodhead, which stood at 8:29.35 from 1978. Old-timers may remember that Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead was a dominant distance swimmer at a very young age just like Ledecky, but was prevented from bringing home a large medal haul by the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
Since this breakout performance in Missouri, Ledecky has gradually ascended to the pinnacle of women’s distance swimming. Ledecky would go on to stun thousands at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha during the 2012 US Olympic Trials when she easily defeated fellow countrywoman Kate Ziegler with a superb 8:19.78, a new Olympic Trials record. Just a month later, Ledecky continued to let her momentum snowball, as she upset hometown favorite and reigning champion, Rebecca Adlington, at the London Olympics. Ledecky’s 8:14.63 shattered the legendary American Record of 8:16.22 that had been established by Janet Evans back in 1989, and just barely missed the 8:14.10 World Record that Adlington had established four years earlier in Beijing.
And now, at the 2013 FINA World Swimming Championships in Barcelona, Ledecky has completed one of the most historic sweeps in swimming history by winning the 400 meter, 800 meter, and 1500 meter freestyles all in American or World Record fashion. On day 7, Ledecky swam a very tactical 800 and came out on top over Denmark’s Lotte Friis with a new world standard of 8:13.86. In a race that saw Friis lead for over 600 meters, Ledecky harnessed her signature finishing strength in order to track down Adlington’s world record, and Ledecky’s fourth gold medal of these World Championships. Of course, this also means that Ledecky establishes a new 15-16 age group record in the process.
It is worthwhile to mention that Ledecky’s 800, as impressive as it was, followed a pace that was actually slower than her 1500 from day 2 for the first 600 meters. This likely reflects a combination of the week-long fatigue that has overcome a majority of the swimmers at the competition, along with a varied approach to the race take by Ledecky. As we are in a unique position in swimming history where proposals are being made to add the 1500 meter freestyle to the Olympics in the women’s program, Ledecky’s physical ability to excel in all of the distance events one after another combined with the strong competition she faced from Friis provide a strong case for the addition of the metric mile.
With all of her World Championship races behind her now, and three new world records to her name, what is left for Ledecky to accomplish? At the rate she’s going, the sky may not be high enough of a limit.
- Dana Vollmer faltered in the 50 meter butterfly final with an 8th place finish (26.46), but now is not the time to dwell on one of her weaker events. In a week where she has already fallen victim to an untimely illness, Vollmer needs to recoup and prepare for her fly leg in the 4x100m Medley Relay on day 8 where the United States will need all of its members to excel to come home with the title.
- In the men’s 50 meter freestyle, both Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin came up a bit short with 4th (21.60) and 6th (21.65) places respectively. Ervin did not have as explosive as a start as he did in the semi-finals when he rattled the American record but both swimmers could possibly be swimming the relay tomorrow. Though Jimmy Feigen took the silver in the 100 meter freestyle individual over Adrian, Adrian has been very clutch for the Americans on relays, and Ervin posted the fastest relay split of the entire team when he split a quick 47.38 during the prelims of the 4x100m Freestyle Relay on day 1. It will be very interesting to see who the US coaches decide to have anchoring the relay on day 8 both in prelims and in finals.
- Missy Franklin finished her individual event campaign at the World Championships with another gold in the 200 meter backstroke and a new championship record of 2:04.76. Leading from start to finish, Franklin continues to assert her dominance in an event where no one in the world seems to even approach her calibre. Furthermore, Franklin continued to demonstrate her Phelps-eque/Lochte-esque stamina and ability to repeatedly ward off fatigue to capture titles. Elizabeth Pelton was not able to reclaim her form from the World Championship Trials last month, and had to settle for 5th place with a 2:08.98. Her 2:06.29 from World Championship Trials would have earned her a silver in tonight’s final. However, Pelton does have the lead-off of the 4x100m Medley Relay tomorrow to look forward to, and the Americans will need her to set a strong pace for a good position entering the final tomorrow night.
- As hard as it may be to ignore the accomplishments of Ruta Meilutyte and Yuliya Efimova, Jessica Hardy’s performances at the World Championships have been nothing short of spectacular. She continued her tremendous run with a 29.90 victory in the first semi-final of the 50 meter breastroke, a time that is just one-tenth of a second off her suit-aided time from 2009 (which was also the previous world-record before Efimova broke it in prelims, and Meilutyte shattered the new standard in semis). Breeja Larson was also very good with a lifetime best 30.20 that has her seeded 4th going into the finals. However, both Americans will have to be on their A-game if they want a piece of hardware in the final, which will definitely be the fastest 50 breaststroke final in history, and may see a sub-30 second swim fail to medal.
- Ryan Lochte was not able to capitalize on his great lane position in the final of the 100 meter butterfly, and had to accept a 6th place finish (51.58). However, Lochte was only a tenth slower than his lifetime best from the night before, and he should not be too disappointed with his effort. He should still get the nod for the fly leg on the medley relay tomorrow night, and the Americans will need him to outpace the same competitors he raced tonight as the medley relay will very likely come down to another spectacular and tight finish.
- Speaking of the potential of a youngster like Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel’s unlimited potential in the splash-and-dash simply can not be ignored. Having become the first 18-and-under ever to break 25 seconds in the 50 meters with her 24.93 from prelims, she lowered her record even further to a 24.91 in the semi-finals and obtained an 8th place berth in the finals on day 8. Since Manuel was 16 entering the World Championships, we will know shortly under which age group her record will officially stand in the record books. The previous Age group records in the 15-16 and 17-18 age group records were 25.26 (Missy Franklin 2011) and 25.00 (Kara Lynn Joyce 2004) respectively. Look for Manuel to continue her streak with some outside smoke on day 8.
- The men’s 50 meter backstroke was surprising both for good and bad reasons. Matt Grevers posted a strong 24.79 in the semi-finals that launched him up all the way to 4th entering the final on day 8. The time is just .07 of his lifetime best of 24.72 from the 2010 Austin Grand Prix. On the other hand, David Plummer had a disastrous start and was never able to recover, and had to settle for a 16th place finish (26.00). However, both Americans will get to swim the backstroke legs of the medley relay tomorrow.
- Chloe Sutton was not able to improve on her lifetime best 8:23.24 from the World Championship Trials, and instead claimed 6th place on day 7 with a 8:27.75. Though she may not be happy with her time, Sutton would not have moved up in place had she matched her best time in the first place, so she can be content with her final placing overall.
New 15/16 or 17/18 NAG in the Women’s 50m Freestyle: Simone Manuel (24.91)
New 15/16 NAG and World/Championship/American Record in the Women’s 800m Freestyle: Katie Ledecky (8:13.86)