IRVINE - The present and future of U.S. women’s swimming strutted its stuff on Thursday, as Katie Ledecky ousted Missy Franklin in the 200-meter freestyle at the U.S. Nationals. It was a rare chance to see the world’s two best female swimmers head-to-head in a contest that was more an overlap of strengths than a chapter of a heated rivalry. At 17, Ledecky is already the world’s premier distance freestyle swimmer. At 19, Franklin has mastered shorter races in the freestyle and backstroke and may go down as the most decorated swimmer of her generation. Neither Ledecky’s winning time (1 minute, 55.16 seconds), nor Franklin’s second-place effort (1:56.40) challenged any records.
“It’s such a rare treat to swim against Katie,” Franklin said after the race. She’s such an inspiration.” Franklin is the older swimmer, but such is her bubbly disposition that there is time to dance on the deck during pre-race introductions.
On Tuesday, the one-two punch of USA Swimming looked more like a pair of kids on a camping trip. Franklin and Ledecky greeted each other with big hugs in a building adjacent to the William Woollett Aquatics Center, and it almost seemed like time to start a campfire and roast some marshmallows. “Oh, gosh, it’s so good to see you,” gushed Franklin, the most wide-eyed accomplished 19-year old who has no idea how many world and Olympic medals she has already won (13). “You look so good,” answered Ledecky, also oblivious to the distance swimming world records she has bulldozed over the past two years as a high schooler. If some rivalries can be cutthroat, at least this faux-rivalry is cozy and cuddly, in part because the the two sunny-side-up personalities won’t allow otherwise and usually not in the same events.
At World Championships in Barcelona last summer, Ledecky swam a career meet, winning gold medals in the three longest freestyle events, the 400, 800 and 1,500, as well as a gold in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Yet she had one salient regret after being named swimmer of the meet: She felt the award should have gone to Franklin, who won six golds, including both backstroke events, the 200 freestyle and three relays. At the London Olympics, Franklin won five medals: golds in both backstroke events and two gold and a bronze in the three relays.
“[Ledecky’s comments] meant so much to me,” Franklin says. “That was definitely tough because I want Katie to feel like she deserves it because she absolutely 100 percent does. Her summer was unbelievable. Her summer before that was unbelievable. And her summers for the next ten years are going to be unbelievable . . .
“She has her goals and accomplishments and I have mine. It’s hard when people start comparing them because they’re totally different and they mean totally different things for both of us. I don’t want her to feel like her accomplishments aren’t as good as mine or that mine aren’t as good as hers, because they’re totally different for both of us.”
The cynic would say that it is a testament to the lack of megabucks available to elite swimmers that drove Franklin to attend Berkeley instead of starting a pro career. Similarly, Ledecky is committed to attending Stanford in the fall of 2015. But both swimmers sound sincere when they speak about the love of the sport and the desire to combine college with the sport’s collegial atmosphere. In fact, though Ledecky is better suited to swim between 400 and 1,500 meters, she is pushing the 200 so she can be a part of the U.S. 4x200-meter relay team. Franklin said she was as proud of her report card that featured straight As last semester as she was of any medal she won in the pool.
A year after Franklin took home honors as world swimmer of the year, Ledecky supplanted her in 2013 and has picked up the pace this season. At the Woodlands (Texas) Swim Team Senior Invitational in June, she lowered her world marks in the 800 and 1,500 meters to 8:11:00 and 15:34:23. “Katie is obviously so incredible what she’s been able to do and what she continues to do,” Franklin said. “Her accomplishments over the past two years have been unreal and she keeps getting better. She’s an inspiration for me just watching her swim every single time with so much passion and just fierceness. I love that about her.”
Those almost sound like words of deference, as if the 19-year old with her best days ahead is already making room for the next generation. Ledecky is only getting stronger. Before setting the records in June, she attended a pre-meet altitude camp for the first time. Her coach, Bruce Gemmell, said he already signed her up for another camp next season before the world championships in Kazan, Russia.
On Thursday, Ledecky held the lead from the first 50 meters of the race, as both women finished well. “I did a good job of using my tempo throughout the race,” Ledecky said. “My arms didn’t really die.” Said Franklin: “Normally the strongest part of my race is the last 25 and it’s kind of a kick in the butt to have someone else who swims the same way.”
If the two swimmers can possibly push each other two greater heights, the U.S. women’s swim team is alive and kicking, indeed.