After two days of racing in cold, rainy conditions at the Pan Pacific Championships in Gold Coast, Australia, the early favorite for MVP of the U.S. team has to be 17-year-old phenom Katie Ledecky.
After winning two gold medals Thursday, Ledecky handed the United States its first relay gold of the meet by running down Australia’s Melanie Schlanger in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. The Australian held a body-length lead over the Bethesda native as she took off from the blocks. Ledecky trailed by more than a second, but that advantage was erased by the second lap, helping the U.S. squad set a meet record of 7 minutes 46.40 seconds.
“I knew I had to sort of think of it as my individual race and not swim it too fast in the first 100,” Ledecky said. “I don’t really know how I did with that, but I knew I had to inch my way up and get my hand on the wall first in the end.”
The U.S. men held off Japan by 0.13 seconds to add a second relay gold, also in the 4x200. Sterling native Matt McLean provided the anchor leg to edge three-time Olympian Takeshi Matsuda.
“I knew I could count on my team to put me in a good situation,” McLean said. “All that was going through my head on that last 50 was ‘don’t screw this up.’ ”
The clutch finish by McLean handed his North Baltimore Aquatic Club training partner, Michael Phelps, his first international gold since coming out of retirement in April.
The U.S. men haven’t lost the 4x200 since the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“I was a part of the team that won in 2004 against [Ian] Thorpe and Australia’s relays,” Phelps said. “I think being able to hold that tradition for this long and being able to get back on the podium, it feels amazing.”
Ledecky’s anchor leg outpaced everyone in the field by one and a half seconds. She said she peeked on the final 50 meters to make sure she was clear of Schlanger.
It was the two-time All-Met Swimmer of the Year’s third gold medal at the newly constructed Gold Coast Aquatic Centre’s outdoor pool, which saw poncho-clad volunteers shadowing swimmers from the ready room to the starting blocks holding umbrellas over their heads.
Joining Ledecky on the relay was Shannon Vreeland, Virginia’s Leah Smith and Missy Franklin. It was Franklin’s first gold of the meet, a year removed from winning a record six gold medals at the world championships, and her only medal of the day.
Ledecky will swim the 400 and 1,500 freestyle events on Saturday and Sunday. She is the world record holder in both.
The relay victories finished off a second straight 10-medal day for the United States.
U.S. captain Jessica Hardy, 27, began the night by winning the 100 breaststroke by 0.04 seconds. Japan’s 17-year-old star, Kanako Watanabe, was second, and American Breeja Larson earned bronze.
“It wasn’t the time I was hoping to go . . . but it was fun, it was a good race,” Hardy said.
Elizabeth Beisel, 22, led a 1-2 U.S. finish in the 400 individual medley with the fourth-best time in the world this season (4:31.99). Maya DiRado, 21, won silver.
Phelps finished fourth in the 100 freestyle, which qualifies the 18-time Olympic gold medalist for the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia.
Cameron McEvoy of Australia easily out-swam reigning Olympic champion Nathan Adrian of the United States and world champion James Magnussen to win in 47.82 seconds.
“I worked out today between those three — there are 28 Olympic medals — so it’s something and just great to be in their company,” the 20-year-old McEvoy said.
Australia’s sister act of Cate and Bronte Campbell went 1-2 in the 100 freestyle, matching their performance at last month’s Commonwealth Games. Cate, 22, was under world record pace at the turn and finished in a sizzling 52.72, nearly matching her world best and meet record time of 52.62 from prelims. Bronte, 20, was second in 53.45; Stanford-bound Simone Manuel won bronze in 53.71.
“This meet isn’t so much racing for times; it’s about racing for places because everyone is in a world of pain at the moment,” said Cate Campbell, who has now claimed successive titles at world championships, Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs in the event. “I’m so excited, I almost don’t want to have a break.”
Franklin, still recovering from back spasms earlier in the week, finished fourth. The United States hasn’t won a medal in the event at a major international meet since Natalie Coughlin at the 2010 Pan Pacs.
Tyler Clary, 25, and Chase Kalisz, 20, couldn’t catch Japan’s Kosuke Hagino, 20, in the men’s 400 individual medley. Kosuke picked up his second medal of the week with a time of 4:08.31.