On her busiest night of the trials, Ledecky became the first American woman to qualify for an Olympic 1,500-meter freestyle race, a storied event that next month will be contested for the first time at a Summer Games.
“The men have swum the 1,500 since 1908,” Ledecky told the Omaha crowd. “It’s 2021 and we finally got one.”
To underscore the gravity of the moment, Janet Evans, the country’s most celebrated distance swimmer, stepped up to Ledecky and draped the medal around the 24-year-old’s neck. There could be no better handoff. Evans held the 1,500-meter record from 1988 to 2007, but she never had the opportunity to race the distance at an Olympics. For years, men raced the 1,500 at the Olympics, but 800 meters was the longest distance available to women.
“I love it,” said Evans, a four-time Olympic gold medalist. “It’s a little bittersweet for me because it was my best race. But I just love it. It’s so great that women finally have this opportunity.”
Ledecky will now be the first, a worthy heir to Evans and a fitting champion to introduce the distance to an Olympic audience. She owns the 11 fastest 1,500 times in history, routinely laps the world’s best distance swimmers and might be the closest thing the Tokyo Games will have to a guaranteed medalist.
“It’s an event that I’ve always enjoyed. As I said, we’re making history tonight and we will be in Tokyo,” Ledecky told reporters.
As she so often does, Ledecky made one of the sport’s most punishing races look effortless in Wednesday’s final. She finished in 15:40.50. It marked her fastest time of the year and the 15th fastest ever and reminded the world she’s simply unbeatable at the distance.
“It takes a lot of mental strength and toughness and strategy. I was pleased with how it felt tonight,” Ledecky said.
Wednesday’s jam-packed day saw Ledecky tackle her shortest and longest races, barely an hour apart. She kicked off the evening session with the 200 free finals, maintaining a steady pace throughout. Ledecky trailed Allison Schmitt, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, at the race’s midpoint but passed her easily on the third lap. Ledecky cruised into the wall with a time of 1:55.11, 1.68 seconds ahead of Schmitt, who earned a spot in her fourth Olympics.
“It’s special every time,” the 31-year-old Schmitt said. “I mean, it’s definitely the most emotional.”
Ledecky’s win was her second-fastest 200 time of the year. She won the event at the 2016 trials with a time of 1:54.88 and then took gold at the Rio de Janeiro Games with a 1:53.73 mark.
She exited the Omaha pool and didn’t have time to celebrate her 200 or even change her swimsuit. Ledecky hit the warm-down pool for 15 or so minutes before she had to attend the medal ceremony for the 200 victory. She walked across the pool deck slowly to conserve her energy for the 1,500. Then she ate a banana. She drank chocolate milk. And she waited.
Back on the pool deck, the Team USA roster grew. Zach Harting won the men’s 200-meter butterfly with a time of 1:55.06, and Alex Walsh was first in the women’s 200-meter individual medley, finishing in 2:09.30.
Ledecky, meanwhile, was focused on the next task: the 1,500-meter grind. It’s the same stroke, but a different challenge. She adjusts her tempo and kicks less. She lets her arms and upper body handle much of the work, drawing power from her hip rotation.
“That’s why the rotation is so important,” said Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s high performance manager. “So often the kick is connected to or anchoring that rotation. And with less kick, it's something you have to be more conscious about. Even though it seems like less effort, it can't just be mindless.”
There was no sign of fatigue from that 200 and as usual, Ledecky’s mechanics were steady throughout. Except for the first 100 meters and the final 50, Ledecky swam every lap between 31.23 and 31.83 seconds. She finished nearly 10½ seconds ahead of second-place Erica Sullivan and locked up her third Olympic event.
Her spot on the U.S. Olympic team was formally secured two nights earlier with her win in the 400, and she now has only the 800-meter free remaining at the trials, with that event’s final slated for Saturday.
Preparing for her busy Wednesday night double — two races in a single session — Ledecky found herself with a rare morning off. She went for a walk in downtown Omaha and bumped into Evans, who offered some encouraging words.
They both knew the next time they would see each other probably would be that night’s medal ceremony and soon Ledecky would be tapped to swim the sport’s longest distance at an Olympics on behalf of generations of swimmers such as Evans who couldn’t.
“It’s just incredible what she did in distance swimming and what she did for distance swimming in the U.S.,” Ledecky said. “Hopefully we can do her proud in Tokyo, along with all the other female swimmers who didn’t have the opportunities that we have today.”
Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.