OMAHA, Neb. — Katie Ledecky knows her opening performance in an Olympic trials that is expected to be as much a coronation as a competition wasn’t very good.
"I felt like I would be faster than that," she said Tuesday night about her 400 freestyle victory a day earlier. "I was just surprised by that time."
Ledecky, the most decorated woman in swimming history, qualified for her third Olympic team, but her winning time of 4:01.27 was nearly five seconds slower than her world record of 3:56.46 set at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It also was well behind the 3:56.90 swum by her Australian rival Ariarne Titmus on Sunday and slower than she herself has been earlier this year, leaving more questions than answers.
Ledecky, one of the most recognizable faces of the U.S. Olympic team heading into the 2021 Tokyo Games next month, knows expectations are running especially high for her this year, which means everything she does will receive some serious scrutiny.
Katie Ledecky reacts after swimming in the Women’s 1,500 freestyle prelims during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Swimming competition at CHI Health Center Omaha. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)
"The first race (at the trials) is always the toughest," she said. "There’s just that added level of excitement and nervousness. I just wanted to get the race over with and get to the wall and punch my ticket (to the Olympics). The time is what it is and I think moving forward, I feel more relaxed now and just trying to look for ways to improve between now and Tokyo."
At 24, Ledecky still gets nervous?
"I was a lot more nervous than I expected to be, just getting into the meet," she said. "It just was something we haven’t experienced all year or really in two years, with all the fans, just being back in that environment. I just needed a reminder of what that felt like. I have those nerves that everyone else has. I got the job done yesterday. I would like to have been faster but I was able to come in today and take care of business."
As for the added weight of expectations, she said, "Yes, there are always expectations out there but the most important expectations are the ones that I have for myself."
Within an hour or two of that less-than-satisfying race, Ledecky was back in her hotel with tears in her eyes — tears of joy.
"That was the first time my immediate family had been in the room together since I think Christmas of 2019," she said. "We just had kind of a moment where I started crying, they started crying, it was like, ‘three-time Olympian,’ it just kind of hit me. It was just so nice to be back with them. We’ve all been through so much over the past year. I think you kind of take things for granted and we don’t want to take things for granted."
After all that, she woke up Tuesday to her most difficult day of the trials: a 200 freestyle heat in the morning followed by a 1,500 freestyle heat about an hour and a half later, then the 200 freestyle semifinals at night.
"I just knew today would be the hardest day, my biggest day of racing top to bottom," she said. "A long day at the office."
Ledecky’s range is unequaled in her sport, spanning from 200 meters all the way up to 1,500 meters, the mile, the first time it will be part of the Olympic program for women.
She swam 1:57.58 in the 200, the second-fastest of the morning qualifying, which was fine, but certainly not fabulous.
"If I had gone a 1:57 in prelims in the 200 free a couple years ago, I probably would have been like a wreck — not a wreck, I just would have let it bother me. But this morning, I was just able to roll it off and say OK, I got the job done, that’s all I needed to do this morning and roll into my mile and felt good there."
After she got some chocolate milk and snacks and relaxed for a bit, she was swimming again, this time in the 1,500. She swam the 20th fastest time in history in 15:43.10. Things were starting to click.
Then, in the evening’s 200 semifinals, she posted the fastest time in 1:55.83.
"She’s probably going to get rolling here as we move through the rest of this meet," her coach Greg Meehan said Tuesday. "That 1,500 prelims was the best swim she’s had so far, that’s coming out of a 200 free that didn’t feel great and a 400 free that didn’t feel great."
Meehan added, "The standards for her externally — I think it’s tough sometimes. The reality is from yesterday morning to tomorrow night, those six sessions, she has 4,400 meters of racing. She’s trying to do something that nobody has ever done before."
The past few days have been so grueling for Ledecky that she said she hasn’t been outside in three days. (Her hotel has a walkway that connects to the arena.)
So, as she was leaving the building Tuesday night, looking ahead to the likelihood of making the Olympic team in two more events Wednesday evening, she had a couple of immediate goals.
"Well," she said, "I’m taking tomorrow morning completely off and planning to get some fresh air."
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