U.S. swimming trials: Katie Ledecky qualifies for her fourth Olympics — where she’ll be an underdog

Katie Ledecky swims during the Women's 400 freestyle preliminaries Saturday, June 15, 2024, at the US Swimming Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Katie Ledecky qualified for her fourth Olympic Games at the US Swimming Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS — Katie Ledecky glided through an immaculate pool here on Saturday night, past helpless peers, toward her fourth Olympics.

She eased ahead of a chasing American pack, by a body length, then three, as she’s been doing without fail for over a decade.

She swam 400 meters in 3:58.35, touching the wall to joyous cheers, and qualified for Paris 2024.

But there, she’ll be an underdog.

Ledecky, 27, has grown semi-accustomed to the once-foreign role since 2021, when Australia’s Ariarne Titmus dethroned her in the 400-meter freestyle in Tokyo. Titmus beat Ledecky by 0.67 seconds in a race for the ages at those Olympics. The following spring, she took down Ledecky’s world record, and a new balance of power in the 400 crystalized.

Ledecky had ruled it from 2013 until roughly 2019. Titmus, though, is now the queen. She and Canadian teen phenom Summer McIntosh traded the world record in 2023. Titmus, after a health scare last fall, has re-established herself as the woman to beat. The 23-year-old Tasmanian threw down a 3:55.44 at Australian trials earlier this week, nearly three full seconds better than Ledecky — and just .06 seconds off her own world-best mark, which she could very well lower in Paris.

Ledecky, meanwhile, remains a gold-medal favorite in the 1500 and 800 freestyle. She’ll surely qualify in those two signature events over the coming week here at U.S. trials, which have graduated from an Omaha basketball arena to an NFL colossus, in small part thanks to her star power. She is widely considered the greatest female swimmer ever, the one whose face and name elicit roars here at Lucas Oil Stadium. She could extend or break all sorts of Olympic records this summer.

Even in the 400, she has maintained sub-4:00 potential remarkably deep into her 20s.

And that, her coach, Anthony Nesty, told Yahoo Sports, “is a testimony to her character, for sure. Her passion for the sport. To perform at a high level for this long, and the event she swims, it’s all about will.”

Publicly, Ledecky has said she was pleased with her Tokyo times. But people close to her have said she was somewhat unsatisfied. “She was probably disappointed in her swims last time around,” Nesty told Yahoo Sports last month. So, not long after returning home, she made a major cross-country leap — from Stanford to Nesty at the University of Florida.

There, she refined her stroke. She chiseled her body. And she fell even deeper in love with the grind.

“I love the training,” she recently told CBS. “Really, if the competitions didn’t exist, I think I would still love it.”

But has she gotten better? Could she perhaps even chase down her former self?

That we’ll find out in Paris.

Her 2016 shadow is probably untouchable. Her 2021 shadow, though, is within reach.

She has also grown accustomed to this type of chase. “I’ve been in competition with myself for many years,” she told NBC this spring. That’s still the case at the longer distances.

But now, in the 400, she is chasing an Australian, Titmus — and potentially a Canadian, McIntosh — who might be just out of reach.

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