OMAHA, Neb. – Katie Ledecky touched the wall far ahead of everyone else at the U.S. swimming trials.
No surprise there.
But she was taken aback by the time. It wasn't as fast as expected, raising the stakes for an expected showdown in Tokyo with the Aussie Terminator.
Ledecky earned a trip to her third Olympics with a never-in-doubt victory in the women's 400-meter freestyle Monday night.
She was a good five body lengths ahead of runner-up Paige Madden, touching the wall in 4 minutes, 1.27 seconds.
But the winning time was far off Ledecky's world record of 3:56.46, which she set almost five years ago at the Rio Olympics.
Another time on everyone's mind: Ariarne Titmus won the 400 free at the Australian trials on Sunday with the second-fastest performance in history — 3:56.90.
Ledecky wasn't close to Titmus' performance, either.
“Very much a blur,” Ledecky said. “I thought I could go a little faster than that, so I’m a little surprised. But I’ll take it for now.”
Titmus, a 20-year-old known as “The Terminator,” has made it clear that she's not intimidated by Ledecky's longtime dominance in the distance events.
Titmus told reporters Down Under that the 24-year-old from the nation's capital is "not going to have it all her own way. I can’t control what she does, (but) if I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it’s going to be a tough race.”
Ledecky made only brief comments after her race in the virtual mixed zone, declining to attend the usual in-person news conference for those who make the Olympic team.
“It was just good to be here and lock in my spot," she said, her muted comments a striking contrast to Titmus' bravado.
While Ledecky is a familiar face on the American team — she's won five gold medals and one silver at the last two Summer Games — the second night of the trials also signaled a changing of the guard.
Two Olympic rookies locked up their spots for Tokyo. Teenager Torri Huske captured the women’s 100 butterfly, while Michael Andrew held on to win the men's 100 breaststroke.
Huske was under world-record pace at the turn but faded just a bit on the return leg. Still, she touched first in 55.66 seconds, breaking the national mark of 55.78 that she set the previous night in the semifinals.
The 18-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, came up short of the world record (55.48) set by Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom in Rio.
“I don't even know what to do,” Huske said. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I feel like it hasn’t really sunk in. It’s really crazy.”
An even younger swimmer, 16-year-old Claire Curzan of Cary, North Carolina, took the expected second spot on the Olympic team at 56.43.
“It’s so exciting to see some young swimmers coming up,” Ledecky said. “I liked seeing Torri’s ear-to-ear grin. It gave me chills in the warm-up pool.”
Andrew has taken an unorthodox path to the Olympic team. He turned pro at age 14 and was trained by his father in a backyard pool, using methods that stressed short bursts of sprint swimming over weight training and the grueling routine of endless laps.
It paid off in Omaha. The 22-year-old Andrew pulled ahead on the outward lap and desperately held on at the end, touching in 58.73 — a bit slower than he went while setting two American records the day before.
After just missing the Olympic team in 2016, Andrew was overcome with emotion. He sat on the lane rope and looked skyward, raising both arms. He hugged his father, mom and sister after climbing from the pool.
“It’s still hard to believe it’s real,” Andrew said. “It’s been five years in the making. Not making that team as a 17-year-old and to come back to kind of rectify that, I’m just honored and blessed."
Andrew Wilson was second, just one-hundredth of a second behind. He is also expected to make the Olympic team. Missing out was national team veteran Nic Fink, who settled for third in 58.80.
Huske and Curzan knocked off 2016 Olympian Kelsi Dahlia, who was known as Kelsi Worrell when she competed in Rio. Dahlia was fourth in the 100 fly — 37-hundreds behind the 16-year-old.
Huske is one the swimmers who benefited from an extra year of training when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year because of the pandemic.
She is set to attend Stanford in the fall.
“I feel like (the one-year delay) really helped me because I was able to work on my strength training,” Huske said. “I feel like it makes a big difference in my second 50. I tend to fly and die — how fast can I go out and hang on.”
In other events Monday night, defending Olympic champions Lilly King and Ryan Murphy advanced from the semifinals with the top times in their respective events. King bounced through the 100 breaststroke in 1:04.72, while Murphy set the pace in the 100 backstroke in 52.22.
The 2012 Olympic champion, 36-year-old Matt Grevers, also advanced to the final, as did Andrew in his second event of the session.
Former world record-holder Regan Smith led the semis of the women's 100 back in 57.92, while Kieran Smith set himself up to make the Olympic team in a second event by leading the 200 free in 1:45.74.
Smith won the 400 free on the opening night of the meet to secure his first trip to the Olympics.
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