OMAHA, Neb. - The race was 400 meters, but it seemed effectively over after the first 25. It wasn’t much longer before the public address announcer at CenturyLink Center intoned, “It’s Katie Ledecky against the clock.”
That would be the case, as it is in most of Ledecky’s races of 400 meters and longer, where she usually is competing only against herself.
But it turned out that this U.S. Olympic Team Trials race Monday night wasn’t over, even if Ledecky never was in real danger of losing. As she fell off her stunning pace for the first half of the race, it allowed Leah Smith to create some suspense with the best swim of her career.
“The last 150 meters, I kept telling myself, ‘Rio, Rio, Rio,’” Ledecky said, knowing she needed to touch the wall first to guarantee getting there, even if the top two in every event are virtually certain to go.
Four years after taking the Olympic gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle at age 15, Ledecky made a second straight U.S. team by winning the 400 in 3 minutes, 58.98 seconds, missing her world record by .61 seconds.
Smith lopped nearly three seconds off her previous personal best with a time of 4:00.65. It made her the third fastest swimmer ever in the event and was almost three seconds faster than anyone else in the world other than Ledecky this season.
Smith, 21, seeking her first Olympic berth, had gained confidence from staying within two seconds of Ledecky at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in Minneapolis last November. Prior to that, Ledecky had been a blurred form in the distance when Smith raced her.
“I mean, I had never been able to see her feet before, so that was exciting,” Smith said. “But my goal (here) wasn’t really like to stay with her, because that would have been stupid.”
Especially the way Ledecky attacked the first 200 meters, when she was 2.02 seconds ahead of her pace in the swim that produced the standing world record at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.
From then on, the crowd of 14,032 was on its feet. As their roaring and clapping washed across the pool, Ledecky figured that meant she was swimming very, very fast.
She reached the midpoint in 1:56.28, a time only four U.S. swimmers ever have beaten in a 200-meter race.
“I thought it was probably a little too fast, and she might regret it when she got to the back 200,” said her coach, Bruce Gemmell, who watched the race on a big screen in the nearby warmup pool.
“But I’m of the mindset there’s no such thing as too fast. The question is if it is too hard, and only she knows that.”
Ledecky did feel she was tightening up at the end. She could see Smith in the next lane, providing a rare challenge that Ledecky clearly relished.
“I’m probably more pumped about her race than mine,” Ledecky said. “She pushed me. I need that.”
The final 100 meters seemed closer than what the clock revealed. The rare sight of anyone near Ledecky clearly was creating optical illusions.
“Let’s not get carried away here,” Gemmell said. “It’s not like she fell apart and went from first to sixth in the last 50.”
For someone who has utterly dominated races over 400 meters the last three years, setting world record after world record (an aggregate 11), Ledecky was surprisingly nervous about her first race at these trials.
She had a hard time getting to sleep Sunday night, going to bed at 9:45 but lying awake until 11:45 and waking at 6 a.m. An attempt to nap between the Monday morning prelims and the final seven hours later proved futile, so she turned on the TV to distract herself.
“I’m still trying to get the first-race jitters out of the way,” she said after the morning race. “It felt like the longest morning of my life.”
Her thoughts had drifted back to the 400 meters in the 2012 trials, when she finished third in 4:05 and missed the Olympic team in that event by less than a second. She would have to wait five more days for the 800, the race she won to make the team.
“I don’t know why I was thinking about that but I think it just shows how far I’ve come, how much experience I’ve gained and how much faster I’ve gotten,” Ledecky said.
She was pleased to be in the 3:58s for the first time in two years. She was pleased that Smith’s time was more than two seconds faster than the winning time in 2012.
“It’s just cool to look back and see how far we’ve all come in four years,” she said.
She moves on to the first two rounds of the 200 free Tuesday, followed later this week by the 100 free, 800 free and possibly the 50 free. She will likely swim very well and very quickly in all of them, even if Gemmell made it clear the best is yet to come when asked if Ledecky had done a full taper for this meet.
“We’ve known for three years what the schedule was, so we could plan to do the fastest swimming in Rio,” he said.
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.