INDIANAPOLIS — For Katie Ledecky, the women’s 800-meter freestyle is almost a given. The 20-year-old swimmer has won every 800 free she has contested since she made her international debut five years ago.
At the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships — part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast — she did not disappoint. The five-time Olympic gold medalist swam the 800 final in 8:11.50 — the fastest time in the world so far this year — and won her 11th national title, and fifth in this event.
And she won the title just 20 minutes after competing in the 100-meter freestyle final, where she finished sixth (good enough to qualify for the 4x100 free at the world championships).
“I’m used to it by now, I’ve done enough doubles in my life,” she said matter-of-factly, standing by the warm-down pool in a Stanford University T-shirt and shorts. “[It just takes] getting out of the pool pretty quickly after the 100 and getting in the warm down pool and getting as much warm down in as I can and hopping out and drying off and diving in for the next one.”
For Ledecky, this national championship was all business. With world championships just a month away, she did not taper much for this meet. So she was not expecting to break more world records here at the Indiana University Natatorium.
She has broken the 800 world record five times in her career, lowering the record by almost 10 seconds in the past four years. Her current world record is 8:04.79. This is over 11 seconds faster than previous record holder Janet Evans ever swam the 800. Her fans almost expect her to set more every time she dives into the pool.
But she was very happy with her first two races at nationals.
“Mainly just had to get the job done and get my hand to the wall as fast as I could,” she said of her goals in the 100 and 800.
Everyone else was — as always — racing for second place. And the runner-up was 2016 Olympic gold and bronze medalist Leah Smith, who clocked 8:20.46 (the second fastest time this year). Both Ledecky and Smith will again, as they did in Rio, compete in the 800 for Team USA at world championships.
For Smith, she is looking for redemption from a disappointing 800 in Rio, where she finished sixth. It’s the one event where she feels like she has yet to show her potential. She won a bronze medal in the 400 free in Rio last year.
“This year, I’ve tried to mentally approach the 800 in a more confident way,” Smith said.
For the first quarter of the race, Smith was turning faster splits than Ledecky. But then Ledecky, as she is known to do, swam away.
“I didn’t split it the smartest way,” Smith added. “But this meet is not the focus of the summer. Last year, I peaked at [Olympic trials] and not in Rio. This year, I’m focusing more on peaking at worlds.”
This will be Smith’s second long-course world championship and Ledecky’s third. At 2017 worlds, Ledecky is aiming to compete in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500-meter freestyle races, plus some relays. She is the reigning world champion in those four freestyle events.
In fact, she has never won any medal other than gold at world championships, and she holds nine world titles to date.
But she is not competing in the 1,500 here at nationals on Saturday. The win in the 800 means that she can compete in the 1,500 at worlds (a fact she will check before leaving Indianapolis). She wants to return to Stanford as soon as possible to resume training for worlds.
And talking about Stanford is what makes Ledecky smile, even more than talking about world records.
Asked about her favorite parts of her freshman year at Stanford, she replied, “every aspect of life.” But then she singled out her three roommates. They left her sticky notes when they moved out of their dorm earlier this month.
“As I was packing up, I kept finding them, and I keep finding them,” she said, as a huge smile lit up her face. “Yesterday I found one in my foam roller. I found one in my water bottle when I was cleaning them out when I was packing up my room.”
“Hope you’re smiling today,” read one note. Another read, “The quad misses you.”
“That was one of the highlights of the year, having three really great roommates and meeting people like that all across campus,” added Ledecky.
She will return to Stanford in the fall and live with swimmers for her sophomore year. And hopefully, she will return with more world championship titles as well.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.