The world’s most dominant swimmer is not infallible.
That was the shocking lesson from Wednesday’s finals of the FINA World Championships in Budapest. American freestyler Katie Ledecky, literally unbeatable in individual events at the World/Olympic level, finished in a stunning tie for second in the 200-meter freestyle. She had been 13-0 in her lifetime in the sport’s two major showcase events, including blowout victories earlier in this meet in the 400 and 1,500 freestyles.
Those wins made her the most decorated female in World Championship history, with 12 gold medals. But they came at a cost.
With 50 meters to go in Wednesday’s 200, the 20-year-old Ledecky was in prime position to take her third individual gold and fourth overall of the championships. She was virtually dead even with Australian Emma McKeown, but both swimmers were passed by Italy’s Federica Pellegrini and wound up tied for silver.
Ledecky was gracious in a rare moment of defeat, but clearly unhappy with her performance. In a post-race interview with NBC Sports, she vowed to come back better in the 200 free in the years to come.
Ledecky’s time of 1 minute, 55.18 seconds was nearly half a second slower than her semifinal time in the event on Tuesday – which remains the fastest in the world in 2017. It was 1.45 seconds slower than her gold medal-winning time in the Summer Olympics last year in Rio de Janeiro.
Accustomed to smashing records with regularity, Ledecky has not been in peak form in this meet. Her winning time in the 400 on Sunday was 1.88 seconds off her world record from Rio, and her 1,500 time was about six seconds slower than her world record from 2015.
It’s plausible that swimming the 1,500 twice – once Monday and again in the finals Tuesday – left Ledecky drained for the 200 final. Her closing 50-meter split of 29.75 seconds was only sixth-fastest in the eight-woman final heat, indicating that she had little left in the tank at end of the race.
Ledecky has incredible freestyle range, but the longer the race, the more dominant she tends to be. She has been untouchable at 400 meters and beyond since 2012. The 200 is where she is most vulnerable, as her narrow victory in Rio over Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom showed.
The 28-year-old Pellegrini, though not the same swimmer who set the world record in the event in 2009 (with the aid of now-banned racing suits), was able to take advantage of Ledecky’s vulnerability Wednesday.
Ledecky’s silver was part of a disappointing day for the Americans in Budapest. The U.S. missed the medals podium in the other three individual finals contested Wednesday – the men’s 200 butterfly, 800 freestyle and 50 breaststroke – and did not advance a swimmer to the final of the women’s 200 fly.
However, the Americans did end the day on a positive note. The 400 mixed medley relay team of Matt Grevers, Lilly King, Caeleb Dressel and Simone Manuel won gold and smashed the world record in the process with a time of 3:38.56. The mixed medley is a new event at the World Championships.
Ledecky will be the prohibitive favorite in the 800 freestyle, which begins with a preliminary round Friday. She also will be a member of the United States’ heavily favored 800 freestyle relay, which means the Stanford sophomore-to-be can come out of Budapest with five gold medals and one silver.
That’s an immense haul for any swimmer. But as is often the case with the world’s best athletes, their rare defeats become more newsworthy than the succession of victories.
For Katie Ledecky, a silver medal at World Championships comes as a major shock. That’s how high she has set the bar.
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