The two-time Olympian was more than 21 seconds better than her competition, posting a time of 15:42.92. It’s well off her world record pace (15:20.48) but was still the fastest 1,500 for any woman since Ledecky went 15:29.51 last March, which happened to be the last U.S. meet before the pandemic postponed the Tokyo Games by a year and upended the swimming calendar.
“It was okay,” Ledecky said following Wednesday’s race. “I didn’t set too many expectations coming into this first race. Kind of knew that getting the first race out of the way would be a milestone in this journey back into real racing.”
Not that there were many doubts, but Wednesday’s mark solidified Ledecky as the runaway gold medal favorite for the 1,500 in Tokyo, which will mark the first time women are able to compete at the distance on the Olympic stage. The 23-year-old from Bethesda already owned the 11 fastest 1,500 times ever recorded, and Wednesday’s mark was the 18th fastest ever — and Ledecky’s 14th best.
“I didn’t really have a time in mind,” she said. “Just wanted to feel it out and get back into the race thing and see what I could put up.”
The 1,500 should mark the biggest difference from Ledecky’s memorable performance at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and her Tokyo goals. She won five medals in Rio — four gold — but the 1,500 wasn’t added to the Olympic menu until a year later. In Tokyo, she will tackle the 1,500 but probably won’t be a candidate for the 4x100 relay, which means she’s still taking aim at five medals. In addition to the 1,500 and the 4x200 freestyle relay, she also will target the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle races.
The addition of the 1,500 significantly alters Ledecky’s workload — both what she’s anticipating in Tokyo, where she’s looking at 3,000 additional meters between qualifying and finals — and her day-to-day training.
In fact, it’s possible Wednesday’s race is the last time Ledecky will even attempt a taxing 1,500 — just under a mile and requiring 30 laps across a long-course pool — until the U.S. Olympic trials in June. Ledecky was noncommittal after her race in San Antonio, but her coach, Greg Meehan, said it might not make sense for Ledecky to race that distance again these next couple months.
If all goes as planned, Ledecky will swim the 1,500 twice in Omaha at the trials and two more times in Tokyo — 6,000 grueling meters in a six-week span.
“If you’re really focused on the 800 and the mile, you can do it every meet,” said Meehan, who coached Ledecky at Stanford and will serve as the U.S. women’s coach this summer in Tokyo. “But someone like Katie has other distances she’s working, so she doesn’t need to do it every meet. We kind of have it mapped out. Four miles in 40-plus days is a lot.”
While the shorter distances could bring her stiffer competition in both Omaha and Tokyo, Ledecky still does plenty of training specifically for the mile. She works on her 1,500-meter pace at least once a week, mixing in related work for the longer distances at other practice sessions.
“I feel good about where I’m at,” she said of her wide range of distances, “at the two extremes, but I also feel good about where I’m at in the middle.”
Her program in San Antonio is designed to give her a taste of the workload that awaits at trials. Ledecky swims in the 400-meter free Thursday, the 200 on Friday and the 800 on Saturday. She’s also entered in Thursday’s 100-meter freestyle race and Saturday’s 50. She isn’t expected to tackle either of those shorter distances at the trials in June, but after waiting 12 long months to compete, she will take the extra work where she can get it.
“It feels good,” she said of Wednesday’s return to competition. “It’s good to see everyone and be in this environment and getting the opportunity to race.”