In case there were any doubts, any skeptics, any nonbelievers remaining: Katie Ledecky made clear over the course of five days this past week that there was no post-Olympic letdown. No rust, no physical hang-ups or mental hiccups. Most knew this was coming when she left the Rio Olympics with five medals — four of them gold — but as the sport turns its attention to the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Ledecky is now the face of swimming, certainly in the United States, if not the world.
At the U.S. championships this past week in Indianapolis, she managed to qualify for six events at the world championships later this month in Budapest. If she enters all of them — the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races, plus the 4x100 and 4x200 relays — it would mark the busiest schedule Ledecky has tackled at an international meet. If she can somehow find the top of the podium six times, she will match Missy Franklin’s record from the 2013 world championships for most titles by a female swimmer.
“I haven’t really set time goals for this year,” she told reporters Friday night in Indianapolis. “Just kind of putting together some good swims and having fun with it.”
Since 2000, the U.S. team at the world championships and Olympics has included Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte or Franklin. They have been staples for the team and, led by Phelps, pillars of American swimming.
But now Phelps is a full-time brand, husband and father. Lochte is serving out the end of a suspension and is ineligible to compete at worlds, and Franklin is coming off shoulder surgeries and isn’t expected to dip a toe in a competitive pool again this summer.
That leaves Ledecky leading the American squad — the entire sport, really — through the next quadrennial, the lead-up to the Tokyo Games. As a teenager, she always has been deferential to the team veterans; now just 20, she’s one of them, sufficiently familiar with the spotlight, expectations and success.
No one’s as versatile. No one’s as fast. No one’s as consistent. She showed that again in Indianapolis.
Ledecky opened the meet Tuesday by winning the 800 free with a time of 8:11.50, nearly nine seconds faster than the rest of the field. That same night, she placed sixth in the 100 free, which should lock her into a spot on the relay team.
The next night, she topped a loaded field in the 200 with a time of 1:54.84, the fastest in the world this year. And then on Friday, Ledecky breezed through the 400 in 3:58.44, the third-fastest time ever.
Making Ledecky’s week all the more impressive: She didn’t taper in preparation, which means her times could be much lower in Budapest.
“I didn’t rest too much for this,” she told reporters. “. . . Maybe compared to the other trials selections meets, this might be the least tapered that I’ve been over the last couple of years.”
Because Ledecky won the 800 free, she automatically earned a spot in the 1,500 field at worlds, which allowed her to skip that race — perhaps her most dominant — Saturday in Indianapolis.
More than three dozen swimmers qualified to represent the United States at the world championships, which begin July 23. Ledecky and the full American squad will head to Opatija, Croatia, on July 12 for a week-long training camp before traveling to Budapest. The U.S. team still will feature some familiar names — Simone Manuel, Elizabeth Beisel, Lilly King, Conor Dwyer, Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian among them — but they won’t be traveling with the likes of Phelps and Lochte. The sport in the United States — and some swimmers, specifically — are in the process of emerging from that shadow.
Jack Conger, the 22-year-old Rockville native, qualified for worlds by winning the 200 butterfly Tuesday, leading the race wire-to-wire and finishing with a time of 1:54.47 seconds. It’s an event that Phelps had dominated in recent years, winning Olympic gold in 2004, 2008 and 2016, silver in 2012, plus five world championships.
“With Michael gone, that butterfly window is completely wide open,” Conger told reporters last week. “I kind of wanted to stamp my ticket and make a statement.”
Conger just completed his senior season at the University of Texas, where he helped the Longhorns to an NCAA championship. Last year he served a four-month suspension for his role in a vandalism incident at a Rio de Janeiro gas station during last summer’s Olympics. While Lochte was handed a 10-month suspension and must sit out worlds this month, Conger will be able to compete in Budapest.
“It was an entire emotional roller coaster,” Conger told reporters in Indianapolis, describing the past 10 months. “You learn about yourself when that kind of stuff hits you. You kind of either get up from it or you let it beat you down, let it kick you down and you stay there. I learned a lot about myself, about my friends and my family. It was definitely super important to me that I came out swinging and fighting. Now it means the world that I’m swimming fast again and I’ve stamped my ticket.”