Katie Ledecky has never gone home with anything other than a gold or silver medal in the Olympics or world championships dating from the 2012 London Games.
But it might happen Sunday in the women’s 400-meter freestyle on the opening night in the pool of the World Aquatics Championships. This is perhaps the most anticipated race of the entire eight-day program.
One of the greatest freestylers the sport has ever seen, Ledecky is up against two younger stars: 16-year-old Summer McIntosh of Canada, and 22-year-old Ariarne Titmus of Australia.
“Of course Summer and, of course Ariarne, have some incredibly fast times over the last two years,” the 26-year-old Ledecky said. “I know they’ll be right there and I know there are a lot of other contenders as well.”
United States head coach Bob Bowman summed up the meet, particularly the first day.
“There are definitely people out there with star quality in swimming,” he said. “There’ll be three of them in the women’s 400 free.”
McIntosh set the 400 world record four months ago in 3 minutes, 56.08 seconds, taking the mark from Titmus, who in turn had taken it from Ledecky.
Ledecky dominates the 800 and 1,500. But not so much the 400.
Titmus calls the 400 “my baby.” And it’s the event in Tokyo where she won her first Olympic gold medal.
“I mean, it’s my favorite race,” Titmus said. “I wish that I could watch from the outside. I don’t really remember as an athlete seeing three women that have held the world record within 18 months all together racing each other. I really hope we can put on a good show.”
“I think this is probably the first time since the Olympics that I’m really feeling the buzz to race.”
Ledecky’s medal haul in the 400, 800, and 1,500 in the Olympics and worlds reads like this: She’s won seven Olympic gold medals and a silver. At the worlds, 19 gold medals and a silver. There are also four other silver medals — in the Olympics and worlds — in relays and a lone 200-meter race.
Ledecky obliterated the field in the 800 and 1,500 at the U.S. national championships several weeks ago in Indianapolis. She won the 400, too. But she acknowledged the time of 4:00.45 was not what she expected.
“That was probably the one (race) I was hoping to be a little better in, just given that I’ve been better in that event throughout the years,” she said.
McIntosh made her Olympic debut two years ago in Japan, finishing fourth in the 400 as a 14-year-old with Titmus winning and Ledecky taking silver.
A lot has changed as McIntosh approaches the race as, perhaps, the favorite. The pressure is on as she and other swimmers prepare.
“I don’t really like to focus on expectations from anyone other than myself,” McIntosh said. “I mean, it’s kind of irrelevant. I really don’t feel the outside pressure. Obviously, it’s there but at the end of the day all I can do is try my hardest and train as hard as I can to race the best I can.”
Ledecky can make history in the 800, which takes place on the penultimate day. She can become the first person — male or female — to win six world titles in the same event.
“I’m looking forward to the 800 at the end of my program,” Ledecky said. “I don’t really have a preference on when it falls in the meet, but I’m used to it being at the end of these meets. And it’s kind of a nice one to end with knowing that its my favorite race.”
Bowman also coaches rising French star Leon Marchand at Arizona State. Marchand is a threat to break Michael Phelps’ world record in the 400 IM of 4:03.84. He has clocked 4:04.28 and is being billed as the next Phelps, the man who won 23 Olympic gold medals.
That race is also on the opening night. The winner is probably not in doubt, but all eyes will be on a possible world record.
“I saw him (Marchand) yesterday and he kind of has a look when he’s ready to swim — and he has that,” Bowman said.
Bowman said Marchand’s area for improvement would probably come in his freestyle leg. He was also asked Friday about any conflict coaching a French swimmer at the worlds.
“Right now my primary concern is the USA,” he said. “So, that’s what I’m addressing now. And I coach some other international swimmers besides Leon, as does every coach here on our staff. And we balance that. But our main concern is our team here.”
One thing for sure, Marchand could be the face of next year’s Olympics in Paris.
“It’s going to be a lot of interest, which is an amazing thing,” Bowman said. “It going to be a lot of pressure — less amazing.”
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