By Peggy Shinn | June 28, 2017, 6:41 p.m. (ET)
Katie Ledecky (R) celebrates with Leah Smith after the women's 800-meter freestyle final at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Aug. 12, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

 

INDIANAPOLIS — Katie Ledecky is in a class by herself. When she dives into the pool in any freestyle race 200 meters or longer, it’s almost a guarantee that she will win.

At the 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships, Ledecky did it again, winning the women’s 200-meter freestyle in 1:54.84, the fastest time in the world this year. It’s her 12th national title and third in the 200 free.

The national championships are serving as a 2017 world championship qualifier and are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.

“I’m really happy with that, I felt good,” said Ledecky, who used a fast swim in the prelims (1:55.87) to shake off any sluggishness from yesterday’s 100-800 double. “It felt like a great race. I’ve been slowly improving that [race] throughout the spring and here too.”

Of the distance freestyle races, the 200 is the only one in which she does not hold the world record. Asked if she’s going after either the WR (1:52.98) or the American record (1:53.61, held by Allison Schmitt), Ledecky shrugged, smiled, then said, “I don’t know.”

“I’ll take it step by step and see what I can do in the event,” she added. “I’m starting to have it down to a science almost: number of kicks and how things should feel in the race and how I should split it. I’m certainly growing in confidence in that race.”

The real excitement of the race happened in Ledecky’s wake, with seven women vying for the second qualifying spot for world championships. Four of them are Olympic gold medalists.

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Would Melanie Margalis win the runner-up spot? The 25-year-old former Georgia Bulldog won Olympic gold by swimming in the prelims of the 4x200 free in Rio. Coming to nationals, she led Ledecky by one point in the Pro Swim Series standings (overall winner will be decided after nationals, and with points doubled for winning, Ledecky took over the lead with her 800 and 200 wins).

Or would Leah Smith finish second? The 2016 400 free Olympic bronze medalist stuck with Ledecky for the first four laps of yesterday’s 800 free.

What about Simone Manuel? A 200 is a stretch for the gold-medal-winning freestyle sprinter. But she finished fourth in prelims.

Then there was Mallory Comerford, a 19-year-old who is afraid of no one. Not Manuel, whom she beat for her first national title last night. Nor the legendary Ledecky, with whom she tied for the 200-yard title at 2017 NCAAs.

In a battle down the home stretch, it was Smith who out-touched the field. She finished second to Ledecky in 1:56.68, a top 10 time in the world this year. It was redemption after the former University of Virginia swimmer finished third in the 200 at Olympic Trials last year and missed swimming that event in Rio.

Margalis and Comerford finished third and fourth and will compete in the 4x200 freestyle relay at world championships.

“Really what gave me confidence [for the 200] was my split at the 100 of my 800,” explained Smith. “I was out in 58, so I felt like I had that easy speed.”

While everyone else is racing for second place against Ledecky, Smith credited her rival for making her — and the entire field — better. Sometimes, when someone is swimming near Smith, she can become unsure of herself and start swimming their race. But not when Ledecky is in the next lane.

“I’ve had some of the best swims of my life next to her,” Smith said. “You can tell she just pushes everybody to be better even though she’s so far ahead. When she raises the stakes that much for what is the standard for great, then everybody [behind her] is still pretty great too. It definitely gives me confidence being able to swim next to her and just know that if she’s having a great race, she may be beating me by a lot, but I’m probably having a really great race for myself too.

“I think that Katie just pushed me to be better, and that’s what I’ll need to be competitive in the semifinal and final in Budapest.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.