Her businesslike demeanor can mask at times how remarkable this all is, and Ledecky will soon have a chance to defend her Olympic title in the 400-meter freestyle, add to her medal haul and bolster her legacy. Her coach, Greg Meehan, reminded her to never take it for granted, that simply earning a spot on the team is an honor.
“It felt pretty surreal in the ready room that we’re about to walk out for trials finals. A year ago, I don’t think we knew if we would be at this point,” said the 24-year-old Ledecky, already the owner of five Olympic gold medals collected from the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games. “Just good to be here and lock in my spot tonight.”
Her success has spawned expectations no other active swimmer knows, so the footnote to her win in the 400 free at Monday’s U.S. swimming trials will surely be her finishing time, which could be the piece that prompts the most chatter in the weeks leading into the Tokyo Olympics.
Ledecky won Monday’s final in 4:01.27. It’s a time that would have won gold at every past Olympics — except for five years ago, when Ledecky set the world record in 3:56.46. But compared with what Ledecky has done — what she feels she’s still capable of — it’s surely not the mark she wanted to post in the year’s second-biggest meet.
It’s not even her fastest 400 of the year and probably a few seconds off what it will take to top the medals podium in Tokyo. Five years ago, Ledecky qualified for the Olympics with a 400 time of 3:58.98 at trials before lowering the mark by more than 2½ seconds in Rio de Janeiro.
The solace for now is that her time was plenty good enough Monday, more than 3½ seconds faster than second-place Paige Madden.
“I felt I went a little faster than that, so I was a little surprised,” Ledecky said. “But I’ll take it for now.”
Much of the intrigue surrounding Ledecky’s ambitious Tokyo program centers on two events in particular — her 200- and 400-meter races. She is as dominant as ever in the longer races, but compared with five years ago she is more vulnerable in the shorter distances.
In the 400, Ledecky has posted 13 of the fastest 15 times ever. In the five years since she set the record at the Rio Olympics, no swimmer had gotten anywhere close to her best mark, including Ledecky. In fact, she hasn’t broken 3:59 since August 2018.
This week’s events have set the stage for an epic showdown in Tokyo, and the defending Olympic champion won’t universally be considered the gold medal favorite in the 400-meter race.
Because the Olympic trials for the United States and Australia happen to coincide this year, Ledecky and Australian rival Ariarne Titmus are effectively dueling from opposite ends of the world, each dip into the pool another opportunity to launch a time that might rattle some nerves 14 time zones away.
Titmus is the one who chased down Ledecky over the final 50 meters of the 400 free at the 2019 world championships, a meet in which Ledecky was rattled by illness. It was Ledecky’s first 400-meter loss on a major international stage.
Ledecky, who could be in line for at least five medals in Tokyo, tried to play down the intercontinental duel earlier in the week, saying she wasn’t even aware that two of the world’s most-anticipated swim trials would be staged concurrently.
“I’m not going to be checking results every couple hours or anything,” she said. “I mean, I’m sure we’ll hear about certain things because I’m sure we’ll be asked about certain things. But I think my focus is on Omaha. It’s not on anything else.
“I mean, the medals aren’t given this week,” she continued, “so I don’t think we have to get too caught up in what times people are going here versus anywhere else in the world right now.”
Others have certainly been keeping track. On Sunday, after Titmus posted a 400 time of 3:56.90 — the second-fastest ever and just 0.44 seconds off Ledecky’s record — Titmus told reporters that Ledecky was “not going to have it all her own way” in Tokyo this summer.
“If I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it’s going to be a tough race,” Titmus said.
The next day the Sydney Morning Herald reported the 20-year-old Aussie had “sent a tidal wave across the Pacific, specifically to Omaha, Nebraska.” Though weather reports in this landlocked Midwestern city didn’t register any unusual activity, there was plenty of buzz around the pool deck, and one day later, Ledecky had her chance to respond.
She posted a 4:03.07 in Monday’s preliminary heat and had plenty left in the tank for the night’s final. With an energetic crowd clearly behind her, she got out to a fast start, as always, racing the clock more than anyone else in the pool. Around the race’s midpoint Ledecky saw her pace start to dip, and she was surprised when she pulled off her goggles and saw her time on the scoreboard above.
Afterward, she called the race “very much a blur.”
“It kind of felt like it did five years ago,” said Ledecky, who will still race the 200-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races this week. “Just wanted to get my hand on the wall as quickly as I could. It wasn’t the best-feeling 400.”
While Ledecky’s race was a main event of sorts, the second day of these trials provided plenty of other fireworks, starting with 18-year-old Torri Huske setting an American record in the 100-meter butterfly and punching her ticket to Tokyo.
And one night after setting an American record in the men’s 100-meter breaststroke, Michael Andrew earned his spot on the U.S. team with a time of 58.73. In the night’s closest finish, he nipped Andrew Wilson, the 27-year-old from Bethesda, Md., who reached the wall just 0.01 seconds later, probably locking up his spot on the Tokyo-bound team.