OMAHA, Neb. — Katie Ledecky will likely make history in Rio.
The 19-year-old is a favorite to win the 200- and 400-meter freestyles — which she has already qualified for at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming. She is a heavy favorite to defend her Olympic gold medal in the 800 as well, which she will most likely qualify for this Saturday.
The last swimmer to win this freestyle trifecta was Debbie Meyer at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
As Ledecky’s teammate, Missy Franklin said, “It’s unbelievable, especially over that wide range of distances. But all of us know that if anyone can do it, Katie Ledecky can do it. I have 110-percent faith she can do whatever she sets her mind to this summer.”
When asked if the 200-400-800 triple will be a stretch in Rio, Ledecky showed her usual nonchalance.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch swimming those events [in Rio],” Ledecky said after winning the 200 freestyle in 1:54.88 at trials on Wednesday night. “I’ve swum them numerous times at different meets, and at world championships last year, swimming the 200 through the mile was great preparation. Take the mile out and throw some relay duties in and I think it sets me up well for a good meet.”
At the 2015 world championships, Ledecky won the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles (the 1,500 is not an Olympic event for women). In Rio, she will add at least the 4x200 free to her agenda.
But others are more impressed, including Shane Gould.
Gould, from Australia, went to the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich as the world-record holder in the 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. In Munich, she won the 200 and 400 freestyles and the 200 IM in world-record time — the first female swimmer ever to win three Olympic golds in world-record time. She also won a silver in the 800 (while ill) and bronze in the 100 and became the first swimmer, male or female, to win Olympic medals in five individual events at one Olympic Games.
“If she does this, it will be absolutely remarkable because of the depth of talent in every individual event now,” said Gould, reached by phone at her holiday accommodation business in Tasmania. “The competition is a lot closer now. There are more specialists now. People specialize in the 100 or 200 or 800.”
“It’s exciting to watch such a fantastic talent and for her to do well in such a range,” Gould added.
Two years ago, Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, called Gould “the standard” and said that Ledecky is not there yet.
But will she be there soon?
“For a talented person like Katie, she needs a challenge in the stratosphere, more than a challenge just on planet earth,” said Gould.
|Katie Ledecky reacts after competing in the 200-meter freestyle at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming at CenturyLink Center on June 29, 2016 in Omaha, Neb.
Ledecky currently owns world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. Is the 200 world record within her grasp? The current record is 1:52.98 set by Federica Pellegrini from Italy in 2009.
“I know what it is,” said Ledecky. “I’d like to get as close as I can to it. But it’s a tough one, and I’ll just be happy to get faster. The main goal this year is just getting into that race and racing.”
Then there’s the women’s 100 freestyle, with prelims that begin on Thursday. Ledecky is tied with Simone Manuel for the second-fastest time by American swimmers in the event this year.
After the 200 free, Coach Gemmell was joking that the clock was ticking, he had 12 hours to turn his star distance swimmer into a 100-meter sprinter.
“I think I’ve shown him this week that I have a little bit of speed,” Ledecky said.
Should she finish in the top four in the 100 free, Ledecky will qualify to compete on the 4x100 free team in Rio — which would likely be her fifth event and second relay.
Of note, Debbie Meyer did not compete in any relays at the 1968 Olympic Games. Gould competed in one relay (4x100 free) for Australia at the 1972 Games; they finished eighth. Women did not compete in the 4x200 free relay until the 1996 Olympic Games.
Meyer met Ledecky at a meet in Arizona in April. She hugged her and, as The New York Times reported, said, “You’re great! Two, four, eight. Do it this summer!”
But Ledecky is not thinking about historical icons.
“I don’t think about who I’m chasing or any of the historical implications or anything, that’s your job,” she said pointedly to the media. “My job is to swim fast in the pool and do the best that I can.”
The 200 freestyle at Olympic Trials also put to bed demons for two 2012 Olympic champions. Missy Franklin finished second to Ledecky, likely giving her a spot in that event in Rio. It was redemption after a devastating finish in the 100 backstroke on Tuesday night.
“People say there’s nothing like making your first Olympic team, but there’s really nothing like making your second Olympic team,” gushed Franklin. “You kind of start to take advantage of it a little bit, and it’s moments like this that you have to sit back and say, ‘You know what, I just did it.’”
And Allison Schmitt finished behind Leah Smith for a spot on the 4x200 free team.
“It’s been a tough four years, I’m so excited right now,” said Schmitt, tearing up. “Gosh, I don’t remember the last time I’ve had happy tears. I’m so excited. It’s not exactly the race I wanted, but I can’t complain about it. I’m excited to represent the U.S. again. … I honestly didn’t think I would be standing here at Olympic Trials again.”
Michael Phelps made history on Wednesday night, winning the men’s 200 butterfly and making his fifth Olympic team. He is the first U.S. male swimmer to qualify for five Olympic Games. He finished in 1:54.84 ahead of Tom Shields in 1:55.81.
In the women’s 200 IM, Maya DiRado won, qualifying her for her second event in Rio. She beat Melanie Margalis, 2:09.54 to 2:10.11, who just out-touched 2012 Olympian Caitlin Leverenz for second place. Margalis, along with the other second place finishers in the trials races, will likely be named to the U.S. Olympic Team later this week. It will be the first Olympic Games for both IMers.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.