OMAHA, Neb. - Katie Ledecky figured this would be a perfect time to multitask at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming.
Ledecky was cruising along so far ahead of the field two-thirds of the way through her 800-meter freestyle heat Friday morning that she spontaneously decided to give herself something else to do.
“Around the 550 mark, I was like, `We’ll practice my 100 free finish for tonight,’” Ledecky said, with a big grin.
And that’s what it looked like, especially in the final 25 meters, when she seriously engaged her legs for the first time in the 800. She blasted the last lap in a brisk 28.71 seconds.
And, by the way, she covered the entire 800 in 8 minutes, 10.91 seconds, merely the third-fastest time ever – behind the 8:06.68 she swam in January and an 8:07.39 from last year’s world championships.
Think about that: third-fastest ever, and the 19-year-old Ledecky did it almost entirely with just her arms.
“It felt really easy,” she said. “I thought it was going to be about 8:20. Bodes well for tomorrow (the final is Saturday night).”
She won her heat by 18 seconds. She was nearly 11 seconds faster than the second-fastest qualifier for the final, Leah Smith (8:21.64).
Ledecky now has recorded the top 10 times in history in the 800. The only question about the final is whether the reigning Olympic 800 champion can set her fifth world record in the event.
The 100 is another matter. Although she has worked on speed much more this year, sprinting is the only thing Ledecky does just very well rather than brilliantly.
And that was the case again Friday night, when she was seventh in the final in 53.99 seconds, well off Abbey Weitzel’s winning time of 53.28. Simone Manuel was second (53.52), earning the other spot in the 100 free at Rio.
The top six in the 100 and 200 freestyles all are expected to go to Rio once the numbers game of picking the Olympic team is sorted out, but anyone on the team can be used in a relay. Ledecky missed sixth by .07 seconds – a blip that may have owed to her relative inexperience finishing a sprint. Last at 50 meters, she was fastest of the eight finalists in the second lap.
Ledecky, winner of the 200 and 400 freestyles, did not wait to do a little lobbying.
“I was seventh, Kelsi (Worrell) was eighth, we’re both already on the team, so if they want us in that relay, they could put us in,” Ledecky said. “If someone gets sick, we will be there.”
Ledecky came into the trials with the second-fastest U.S. 100 time of the year (53.75). Her inability to match or better that time was both disappointing and understandable.
“The 53.7 was the first race of that meet (in January,)” she said. “This was after a little bit of work, so it’s a little different. I would have loved to be faster, but I’ll take it.”Ledecky had already swum 2,400 competitive meters before the 100 final, and there was some speculation she might opt out it with virtually no chance at an individual Olympic medal at that distance. But she didn’t become the world’s most dominant swimmer by turning away from challenges.
“I didn’t fall flat on my face,” she said. “I ended up with no regrets. Four years ago, I never thought I would be swimming the 100 free final at the Olympic Trials.
Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.