OMAHA — Day 6 of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials found Katie Ledecky toggling between two different swimming identities. She showed up at CenturyLink Center on Friday morning as a distance freestyler — arguably the greatest in history — then warmed down and went back to her hotel with the intention of eating, napping and returning in the evening as a sprinter, merely one among a group of Olympic hopefuls. Same stroke, same goal — get your hand to the wall before the others — but a different engine and a different mentality.
Ledecky’s morning swim in the preliminary heats of the 800-meter freestyle appeared easy — she barely kicked in the first half of the race, saving her legs for the evening — but her time of 8:10.91, which led all qualifiers by more than 11 seconds, was also the third fastest in history. And it gave her the distinction of holding all 10 of the fastest times in history, bumping out Rebecca Adlington, whose 8:14.10 in 2008 stood as the world record until Ledecky took it down in 2013.
When Ledecky swims the 800 again in Saturday night’s final, a sold-out crowd is likely to be on high alert for a world record. If she wins, as expected, she will be heading to Rio with the mission of sweeping the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles, something no one since Debbie Meyer in 1968 has done. The only reason she won’t win the 1,500, too — as she did at last year’s world championships — is because they don’t contest that distance for women in the Olympics.
“I took it pretty easy,” Ledecky, a 19-year-old Bethesda native, said of Friday morning’s prelim swim. “At the 550 [meter] mark, I said, ‘Oh, I’ll practice my 100 free for tonight.’ I thought [the clock] was going to say 8:20. It felt really easy, so I’m really happy with that. It bodes well for tomorrow.”
On Friday night, she would be swimming in the final of the 100 free — the rare event she does not dominate — as the seventh seed, with the goal of cracking the top six and earning a berth on the 4x100 freestyle relay team at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, giving her a fifth event there and a fifth medal possibility. A top-two finish Friday night, and thus a spot in the individual 100 free in Rio, remained an outside possibility.
“I still think I can be right up there,” Ledecky said. Of a potential relay spot, she said, “I have other goals just as big or bigger, but obviously we all want to get faster for that relay so we can be in contention, and hopefully I can be a part of that this summer.”
While history has produced great swimmers who have dominated the freestyle from the shortest to the longest distances — Australian Shane Gould, who held every world record from 100 to 1,500 in the early 1970s, being the most notable — in this current age of specialization, it is almost unheard of for a top distance swimmer to also be a world-class sprinter. The disciplines require different physiological systems, and training for one can prove detrimental to the other.
To illustrate: Of the 50 swimmers entered in the “A” flight of Friday morning’s preliminary heats of the 800 free, only three others besides Ledecky also owned trials-qualifying times in the 100 free, and none finished in the top 50 in preliminary heats of the latter event.
Among those on hand to witness Ledecky’s 800 free Friday morning was four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, the distance darling of the 1980s and 1990s, whose American records Ledecky has slowly dismantled. Evans once owned world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500, but she never won a major international gold in the 200 and was never a factor in the 100.
“I’ve always though Katie was a middle-distance swimmer who kind of hung on for the 800 and the mile — because she’s clearly just that good,” Evans, 44, said of Ledecky’s range. “But [with] her stroke and technique and strength and power . . . it doesn’t surprise me. She’s shown a lot of the easy speed, so it’s evident she can go down to the 100. It just doesn’t surprise me. But I do think it’s an era where that’s not happening as much.”
Late Friday morning, Ledecky, still dripping wet just moments after finishing her 800 prelim, saw Evans waiting at the bottom of the flight of stairs connecting the pool deck to the concourse below. The former distance champion and the current one hugged briefly, but Ledecky didn’t stick around to chat. She is at work here, and she had a mission Friday, and at that moment she was only halfway done with it.
Notes: Defending Olympic champion and world record holder Missy Franklin led qualifying in the 200 backstroke Friday morning, in 2:09.69, and afterward acknowledged needing to recalibrate her goals after the disappointment of missing a spot on the team in the 100 back — in which she is also the defending Olympic gold medalist — and 100 free.
“It felt awesome. It’s my favorite race,” she said of the 200 back. “It’s bit a little bit harder for me to call on my speed this week, but my endurance has felt awesome.”
Assuming she earns a spot in the 200 back, Franklin, 21, will be swimming in a maximum of three events in Rio, down from seven in London four years ago.
“It might be really nice to go to an Olympics and really enjoy the experience instead of swimming so much,” she said. “I haven’t sat in the stands in an international competition since 2011. Thinking that I might actually have that opportunity is also very exciting despite the disappointment of not making it.” . . .
Maya DiRado and Elizabeth Beisel, who have already made the team in individual medleys, finished second and third in the 200 back qualifying. Beisel is swimming despite a training accident earlier in the week, when she broke a bone in her pinkie finger. . . .
Caeleb Dressel, 19, paced all qualifiers in the prelims of the men’s 50 free, in 21.76 seconds, ahead of Team USA veterans Anthony Ervin (21.80) and Cullen Jones (21.84). Defending world championships silver medalist Nathan Adrian (21.96) was fourth. Adrian and Dressel finished 1-2 in the 100 free final Thursday night to clinch spots on the U.S. Olympic team.