Until Thursday, Katie Ledecky’s stellar international swimming career had been decorated almost entirely in gold with just a splash of silver. Her trophy case will now have a touch of bronze when she returns from the Pan Pacific championships in Tokyo, as Ledecky was surprisingly bested by a pair of teenage swimmers in the women’s 200-meter freestyle final on Thursday.
Ledecky had a busy opening day of the Pan Pacs. After setting a meet record in the women’s 800 freestyle, she was back in the pool less than 75 minutes later, lined up for the 200. It’s a grueling double, which became clear after Ledecky made her final turn and just couldn’t made up any ground on the leaders. Ledecky touched the wall in 1:55.15, 0.71 seconds behind Taylor Ruck, the 18-year old Canadian who set a meet record of 1:54.44. Japan’s Rikako Ikee, also 18, took silver in 1:54.85.
“It’s always great to get a medal for Team USA. I’ve been a lot faster than that a number of times this year, so I’m a little disappointed with the time,” Ledecky told reporters after the race. “I think I have a lot more in me in that race, and I’m going to continue to work towards that for the next two years.”
It was the second medal of the day for the 21-year old Ledecky, and her career tally in major international competitions — Pan Pacs, world championships and the Olympics — stands at 25 gold medals, two silvers and now one bronze.
The Pan Pacs is a quadrennial event held at the midpoint in the Olympic cycle. It is regarded as the year’s most-anticipated international meet and will be Ledecky’s best chance to show what she’s capable of heading into next summer’s world championships. She’s expected to compete in four individual events over the next four days in Tokyo and could be used on both freestyle relays.
The 800 was the first of her two events on the meet’s opening day. She won with a time of 8:09.13, the fifth-best she’s ever posted and the fastest since she broke her own record in the event at the 2016 Olympics (8:04.79).
“When I sit back and look at the grand scheme of things, I was faster in both those races than I was four years ago at this meet,” she said. “That’s a positive that I can take away from it and just know that I have two more years to put in a lot of good work and see what I can moving forward.”
Ledecky, a five-time Olympic champion, won three titles at last month’s U.S. championships, giving her 17 in her stellar career, but was clearly saving her best races for Pan Pacs. She set a high bar early, breaking the meet record Thursday morning in her qualifying heat for the 200, posting a time of a 1:55.16.
But in the 200 final, which was raced Thursday evening in Tokyo, she was apparently still feeling the effects from the taxing 800 race. Her time in the finals was only 0.01 second faster than the one she posted in the morning preliminary heat.
Ledecky didn’t want to blame fatigue and said she has no regrets about taking on both events in the same day.
“I knew it was going to be tough. It’s a tough double — I’ve done it a number of times,” she said. “It’s always a tough thing to try to get the warm-down right, the warm-up right for the 200. Never really know how it’s gonna go until I get in there.”
While Ledecky holds world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles, she hasn’t been quite as dominant at the shorter distances and has faced stiffer competition in the 200. Before Thursday’s bronze, her only other individual loss in a major international meet came at last year’s world championships, where she took silver in the 200 race with a time that was 0.03 seconds slower than the 1.55.15 she turned in Thursday in Tokyo.
“I really put a lot of work into trying not have that happen again. Obviously, it’s all about the process. I know that I still have two more years to go until the big show here in Tokyo,” she said of the 2020 Summer Olympics. “I’m hoping to be here, competing in that event and getting another shot at it.”
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