Katie Ledecky, Record Crowd Highlight Historic Day 1 of U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials

A world record fell and the legendary freestyler made her fourth Olympics in front of a record-setting crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Ledecky made her fourth Olympic team Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Ledecky made her fourth Olympic team Saturday night in Indianapolis. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar

INDIANAPOLIS—The U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials opened with a historic bang Saturday night—record attendance, a world record in the pool, a legend making a fourth Olympics and an upset by a hometown kid.

In front of a crowd of 20,689 at Lucas Oil Stadium, easily the largest gathering ever to see an indoor swim meet, Gretchen Walsh verified her blooming greatness with the fastest 100-meter butterfly ever by a woman. Then, Katie Ledecky became just the ninth American swimmer to qualify for four Olympics, winning the 400 freestyle. And after that, Indianapolis product Aaron Shackell knocked off several Olympians to win the men’s 400 free.

USA Swimming took a gamble moving its signature event to an NFL stadium, but the early returns were spectacular. With the massive throng cheering them on, American swimmers threw down some fast times.

“Tonight blew it out of the water,” Ledecky said. “It was a pretty cool start to the week.”

Walsh started off by blowing away Sarah Sjostrom’s eight-year old record of 55.48 in the butterfly, clocking a 55.18. The 21-year-old Virginia swimmer Walsh put the record on notice in the morning preliminaries by breaking 56 seconds for the first time in her career, then went much faster at night. When she saw the scoreboard, she broke into tears.

“I think my reaction showed it all,” Walsh said. “I was absolutely awed by the time.”

Gretchen Walsh reacts after setting a world record during the 100 meter butterfly semifinals at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Walsh smashed an eight-year old world record but will still need to finish in the top two in Sunday's final to make Team USA. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

Walsh turned at the 50-meter mark in 25.45 seconds, way under Sjostrom’s record pace and “way too fast,” she thought. But she carried her speed through the back half of the race to validate herself as a long-course superstar. Previously, Walsh had shattered records in numerous events in college meets that were contested in 25-yard pools. This was her widely anticipated coming-out party in the big pool.

Now here’s the hard part: Walsh still hasn’t made the U.S. Olympic team. This was only a semifinal, and there are two more sizzling-fast competitors in the event. Which means that the world record could be lowered again at this meet.

Torri Huske, who held the American record until Saturday night, qualified second for Sunday’s final with a time of 55.79. Right behind her is Regan Smith at 55.92. All three are strong favorites to make the American team for Paris in other events, but only two of them can make it in this one.

With three women under 56 seconds, and all eight finalists under 58, Saturday was the fastest night of butterfly in American history. “It was an honor to swim next to her,” says Kelly Pash, who was in the lane adjacent to Walsh and qualified for the final in eighth. “I feel like I got all of her dolphin kicks, but you know what? I’ll take it.”

It’s been a big week for Ledecky. She became a published author and made her fourth Olympic team, having previously competed in London, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. (Ledecky, 27, has declared her intention to keep swimming through 2028, aspiring to make the Los Angeles Olympics her fifth appearance.)

Her winning time of 3:58.35 was the sixth-fastest of her career, and more significantly it was faster than her time in winning the event at Trials in both 2016 and ’21. She was beaming in post-race interviews, succeeding in never letting these moments get old.

“It’s special,” Ledecky said. “I just tried to enjoy each moment tonight. … I feel like I enjoy this more and more each year. I pride myself on that consistency. I challenge myself to stay consistent. 

“Ever since I made it to London, I never thought I’d make it there. I didn’t dream of that as a young kid. (After London) I wanted to prove I wasn’t a one-hit wonder. But at the same time I reminded myself that anything more than that is icing on the cake, cherry on the cake, whatever. That’s just the focus I’ve been able to maintain.”

Katie Ledecky competes in the 400 freestyle final at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.
Ledecky posted the sixth-fastest time of her career in the 400 free, setting up a battle against stiff competition in Paris. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

Her autobiography, Just Add Water, hit shelves on Wednesday. Saturday night, Ledecky captured the 400-meter freestyle title for the third straight time at Trials to punch her ticket to Paris—with much more to come. The greatest distance swimmer in history, owner of seven Olympic gold medals and three silver, should add titles here in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles—both events in which she is the world-record holder. 

She also is the top seed in the 200 free if she swims all three rounds in that event. Ledecky might opt to post a time during preliminaries that guarantees her a spot on the American 800 freestyle relay but take that race out of her individual program, since it could be difficult to earn a medal at that distance.

Ledecky will face fierce competition in the 400 free in Paris. Australian Ariarne Titmus defeated her in a thrilling 400 duel in 2021 in Tokyo and is the current world-record holder (3:55.38). Titmus threw down a 3:55.44 earlier this month in the Australian Olympic Trials, showing that she remains in peak form. Then there is Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh, who held the world record for about four months last year before Titmus reclaimed it. McIntosh went under four minutes at Canadian trials in April.

“It’s going to be a great field,” Ledecky said.

The American men have lagged behind internationally in the 400 free, but Indianapolis product Aaron Shackell provided a blast of new energy in the event by winning the event from Lane 6. The 19-year-old Shackell, a product of the red-hot Carmel Swim Club, left school as a freshman at California during the past school year. 

“I wasn’t swimming well and I didn’t want to risk missing an opportunity,” Shackell said of the decision to come home and train with his old club.

Aaron Shackell smiles while receiving cheers from the crowd after winning the 400 freestyle final at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Shackell, 19, earned his berth to Paris in front of a hometown crowd in Indianapolis. / Grace Hollars/IndyStar / USA TODAY

Shackell took the lead from the beginning and tenaciously fought off Tokyo Olympians in the event—runner-up Kieran Smith, fourth-place finisher Bobby Finke and eighth-place Jake Mitchell. “I’m not going to lose,” Shackell told himself when he flipped for home with the lead.

Among the thousands of hometown fans cheering for him was his younger sister, Alex, who qualified fourth in the women’s 100 fly earlier in the night and will be a strong contender to make the team in the 200 fly. Alex put her post-race drug test on hold long enough to run out and see Aaron lock up his Olympic spot.

“I can’t even describe it,” Alex Shackell said, physically shaking as she talked. “That was more stressful than my own swimming. … I knew he could do it. I had a feeling. I can’t imagine my parents right now.”

For Aaron Shackell, he’s carrying on a family legacy—his father, Nick, was a 1996 Olympic swimmer for Great Britain. And now a Carmel legacy as well, with Mitchell and Drew Kibler having made the team in 2021. 

When Shackell won, he exited the pool and spiked his cap and goggles in exultation. Later, when he went up on the platform to be formally recognized as a champion and Olympian, the emotion was evident on his face.

“It was just a moment I’ve always dreamed of, watching previous Olympic trials,” Shackell said. “I was just soaking it all in.”


Published |Modified
Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde covers college sports, the Olympics and horse racing for Sports Illustrated. Pat wrote two books and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his work at SI, Pat is also the co-host of the College Football Enquirer podcast. He is an analyst for the Big Ten Network and contributes to national radio shows. In a career spanning more than three decades, Pat has worked at Yahoo! Sports, ESPN and the Louisville Courier-Journal.