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

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 at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, touched the wall to joyous cheers, and qualified for Paris 2024.

But there, on opening night, 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 hierarchy in the 400 crystalized.

Ledecky ruled it from 2013 until roughly 2019. Titmus, though, has become the queen.

Canadian teen phenom Summer McIntosh briefly snatched the world record in 2023. But Titmus took it back, and, after a health scare last fall, re-established herself as the woman to beat in 2024. The 23-year-old Tasmanian threw down a 3:55.44 at Australian trials earlier this week, nearly three full seconds better than Ledecky Saturday night — and just .06 seconds off her own world-best mark, which she could very well lower in Paris.

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 on Saturday at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Ledecky, meanwhile, remains a gold-medal favorite in the 1,500 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 and squeals here at Lucas Oil Stadium. She could extend or break all sorts of Olympic career 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.”

She added Saturday: "I feel like I enjoy this more and more each year."

She has not quite been able to chase down her former self. Her 2016 shadow, the one that set two world records in Rio, has seemed untouchable. "And, yeah, sometimes it can be tough, feeling like you're not having a breakthrough," Ledecky acknowledged Saturday night.

But, she said, "I pride myself on that consistency."

She also pointed out that Saturday's time was her best in a 400 free at trials — ever.

She went 3:58.98 at Olympic trials in 2016, then dropped two-and-a-half seconds between Omaha and Rio. Her 4:01.27 at trials in 2021 was disappointing, but she shaved nearly four seconds off it, to 3:57.36, in Tokyo. She has always valued and milked the weeks-long Team USA training camps between trials and major international meets. If she drops multiple seconds again at this year's camp in North Carolina, she'll be a 400-meter gold medal contender.

But she is no longer chasing only her 2016 times; no longer solely "in competition with myself," as she said to NBC this spring. She still is 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.

Ledecky was asked Saturday about the Olympic race. "It's gonna be a great field. I mean, I've known that," she began.

Her focus, she said, was on "being my best self." She is also, however, "a student of the sport." She keeps tabs on Titmus, on McIntosh, on others."I keep track of everything that's going on around the world," she said.

"So," she continued, and then she paused, and flashed a smile. The entire room knew what she meant. "I know what [time] everyone's going. And I'm excited to race."