OMAHA, Neb. — As 15-year-old Bethesda native Katie Ledecky stepped up to the block for the final heat of the women’s 400-meter freestyle at the 2012 Olympic Team Trials on Tuesday night, she could look to her right and see an Olympic bronze medalist; her left and see a FINA world champion.
She finished in second place in the afternoon’s preliminaries and just needed one more top-two finish in the event to likely secure a spot on the Olympic team. Surrounded by some of the world’s best swimmers, Ledecky shaved almost eight- tenths of a second off her preliminary time, coming in at 4:05.00.
The time was good for a new age-group national record. But it wasn’t quite fast enough for an Olympic team berth. Ledecky finished third behind Olympic bronze medalist Allison Schmitt (4:02.84) and 2008 Olympian Chloe Sutton (4:04.18). Great Falls, Va., native and 2008 Olympian Kate Ziegler finished seventh (4:09.17).
Schmitt led by almost a body length during the entire race and began with a world record-breaking pace. Ledecky was in second place after the first three turns, until Sutton began catching up to her in the second half of the race. Sutton and Ledecky, who flanked Schmitt in lanes three and five, remained neck-and-neck in the final minute, until Sutton pulled away on the last leg.
Ledecky still has a chance to make the Olympic team as she will compete in the 200-meter freestyle preliminaries Wednesday morning and the 800-meter freestyle preliminaries Saturday. She is seeded 13th and third in those events.
First-place finishers in all events qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, as do athletes who finish 1-4 in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle. After that, if 26 athletes haven’t been named to each of the women’s and men’s teams, the second-place finishers in each event are then named to the team, in a priority based on world rankings.
Since the Olympic trials have used this format, second-place finishers in all events always have made the Olympic team.
Ledecky wasn’t the only local to compete in Tuesday night’s session as former University of Virginia swimmer and Sterling, Va., native Matt McLean finished fourth in the semifinal of the men’s 200-meter freestyle. With a time of 1:47.40, McLean finished behind Ryan Lochte (1:46.25), Michael Phelps (1:46.27) and Conor Dwyer (1:47.38), and he earned one of the eight spots in Wednesday’s final.
McLean finished ninth in the preliminaries of the 400-meter freestyle Monday, missing the event’s finals by less than seven hundredths of a second. After his fourth-place finish Tuesday morning, though, he had all but forgotten about Monday’s disappointment.
“[It’s] out of my head. That’s the best thing I can say,” McLean said after his fourth-place preliminary finish. “Forget that, and move on.”
McLean also will compete in the 100-meter freestyle Wednesday, for which he is seeded 103rd. But his easiest route to a spot on the Olympic squad likely would be another fourth-place finish in Wednesday’s 200-meter freestyle final.
And if an Olympic team berth isn’t motivation enough, swimming in the same heat with Olympic medalists Lochte and Phelps should give him even more inspiration.
“They’re great guys and great competitors,” McLean said. “So all I can do is focus and do what I need to do.”