On Wednesday night at U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, Katie Ledecky won the women’s 200m freestyle and women’s 1500m freestyle in an 85-minute span, earning a spot in both events for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Looking ahead to the Tokyo Games, here’s a look at just how hard that 200m/1500m freestyle double will be.
The significance of the women’s 1500m freestyle
Before winning the 1500m freestyle on Wednesday night, five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky had a message for her competitors: “We’re making history tonight,” she said.
While the women’s 1500m free has been contested at the world championships since 2001 – and men have been swimming the distance at the Olympics since 1908 – this summer’s Tokyo Games will mark the first time women have the opportunity to compete in the event at the Olympics.
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The inaugural Olympic gold medalist in the women’s 1500m freestyle will almost certainly be Ledecky.
Ledecky clocked 15:40.50 to win Wednesday night’s 1500m free final, marking the 14th fastest time ever recorded by a woman. In fact, Ledecky currently boasts the top 10 times in the event. Her 2018 world record (15:20.48) – as well as her 23th fastest performance, too (15:45.59) – would have won gold in every men’s Olympic 1500m until 1976.
While there’s no arguing with Ledecky’s success in the 1500m, it’s fair to say that her margin of dominance would likely be even larger if she wasn’t also aiming to defend her Olympic titles in the 200m free, 400m free, and 800m free, too.
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The Tokyo Olympic schedule features a tough 200m/1500m double… if you’re a woman
According to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, 57 men have entered both the 200m free and 1500m free at the same Games since 1968.
In the history of the modern Olympics, only five male swimmers have won medals in both the 200m (or 220 yard) and 1500m (or comparable distance event) at the same Games:
- 2012 London Olympics – Sun Yang (CHN): silver in the 200m, gold in the 1500m
- 1996 Atlanta Olympics – Daniel Kowalski (AUS): bronze in the 200m, silver in the 1500m
- 1904 St. Louis Olympics – Francis “Frank” Gailey (USA): silver in the 220 yard race, bronze in the mile
- 1904 St. Louis Olympics – Emil Rausch (GER): bronze in the 220 yard, gold in the mile
- 1900 Olympics – Zoltan Halmay (HUN): silver in the 200m, bronze in the 1000m, silver in the 4000m
No man has ever won gold in both events at the same Games, and only one man – Sun Yang – has won gold in both the 200m and 1500m free at different Games.
When Sun and Kowalski won medals in both the 200m and 1500m at the same Games, they faced an easier schedule than Ledecky will this summer.
Neither Sun nor Kowalski – who both entered four events each in 2012 and 1996, respectively – competed in more than one event on any given day. In addition, there were at least three days between when they swam the final of the men’s 200m free and prelims of the men’s 1500m.
And the same is true of the men’s Olympic swimming schedule in 2021.
But not the women’s.
In Tokyo, the women’s 200m free and 1500m free prelims will both take place during the same session, as well as the finals of both events.
“I would point out that the men do not have that double,” Ledecky said at April’s Team USA summit. “So any male swimmer that wants to compete in those events (200m free, 1500m free) – I don’t know if there are any that are actually attempting that – they do not have the double.”
This week at U.S. Trials, Ledecky got a preview of what her Olympic schedule will feel like.
In Tokyo, her hardest day will likely be day four of the Games (July 26, 2021), when she will look to defend her 400m Olympic gold medal in the morning session (against rising star Ariarne Titmus of Australia) and then come back to the pool for evening prelims in both the 200m and 1500m freestyles.
Here’s a look at Ledecky’s most likely schedule for the Tokyo Olympics:
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Ahead of a new opportunity, Ledecky is thinking of the women who couldn’t
Despite the challenging Olympic schedule, Ledecky is mostly just excited about what the addition of women’s 1500m means.
“I’m just so grateful that we have the mile in now,” she said on Wednesday night.
Ledecky received her 1500m Olympic Trials winner’s medal from Janet Evans, who won back-to-back gold medals in the 800m gold in 1988 and 1992, and also held the women’s 1500m world record from 1987 to 2007.
“Hopefully we can do her proud in Tokyo, along with all of the other female swimmers that haven’t had the opportunities that we have today,” Ledecky said.
Ledecky is also close friends with Chris Olmstead (née von Saltza), who won individual medals in both the women’s 100m free and 400m free at the 1960 Rome Games (back when the 400m free was the longest women’s event contested).
Like Ledecky, Olmstead also attended Stanford. But when Olmstead arrived in 1961, there wasn’t just no women’s swim team, but women also weren’t allowed in the men’s competition pool.
Earlier this week, Ledecky also texted with Debbie Meyer, who won gold in the women’s 200m and 800m when both events debuted at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Meyer is also a previous world record holder in the women’s 1500m (1967-1971).
On Saturday, Ledecky will look to qualify her fourth individual event for Tokyo: the 800m free. (Given that she owns the 23 fastest times in history in that event, it’s fair to say she’s a lock.)
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NBC Sports’ Megan Soisson contributed to this story.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC