Katie Ledecky took down Missy Franklin in the women’s 200 freestyle Thursday evening at the U.S. nationals in Irvine, California, and though both laughed and made all sweet about it because that’s how they are, and Franklin even danced on deck when the poolside announcer talked about the Backstreet Boys, this — when, years from now, they look back — may well be one of the Katie Ledecky signature moments. Ledecky touched in 1:55.16, a full 1.24 ahead of Franklin. It was the second-fastest time in the world this year and, for Ledecky, a personal best. Which ought to give everyone pause, because Ledecky just turned 17 in March and has so far concentrated on the 400 and above. She simply has not raced the 200 much. As she learns the race, she probably will get a lot, lot faster.
The two of them are — at once — racers, teammates and friends, Ledecky headed for Stanford, Franklin already at Berkeley, the both of them expected mainstays for years to come not just on the U.S. team but on the American 4x200 relay.
That relay, in fact, is what Ledecky — and coach Bruce Gemmell — have said is the thing that drew her down to the 200 from the distance events she has come to dominate.
Then again, she was entered in Irvine in, among other events, the 100 free, too. She simply is becoming so good that she has to try.
Last year, at the world championships in Barcelona, after Ledecky was named the meet’s outstanding swimmer, she said Franklin should have had the honor.
This was their back-and-forth then:
“I am sooooooo proud of Katie. She was absolutely unbelievable. I think she has probably been my absolute favorite swimmer to watch ever." — Franklin
"Missy deserves it probably more than I do. Missy had an incredible week. We are all so proud of her. What she did this week, we were sitting there in awe." — Ledecky
This was them Thursday on the pool deck:
“You never know with Missy. It was a tough race. I just enjoyed being in the final.” — Ledecky
“It’s so special. Watching Katie in the 1500, the 800, it’s a treat for everyone. Being able to race her in the 200, it just makes you better.” — Franklin
“I watch her all the time. She’s amazing. It’s great to watch her here and learn from her.” — Franklin
This is how this sort of thing is really is.
Here’s how it is, too:
On Thursday night, Katie Ledecky slipped down into a distance that Missy Franklin owned last year and Ledecky was more than a full second better. So what does that mean for each going forward, and for the U.S. team, and for world swimming?
This was Franklin, of the five gold medals in London, the six golds at the 2013 worlds in Barcelona, including that 200 free.
Ledecky came to Irvine the winner of gold in London in the 800, when she was just 15. In Barcelona, at 16, she won the 400, 800 and 1500 and set two world records in the two distance events. She has since lowered both distance marks — both this past June at a low-key meet in Texas, both by more than two seconds.
On Wednesday, as the Irvine meet got started, Ledecky flirted with the world record and easily won the 800. Franklin, meanwhile, took the 100 free over Simone Manuel, another rising teen talent who, like Ledecky, is headed for Stanford.
In the 100 free prelims, Ledecky had finished 13th.
In Thursday morning’s 200 free prelims, Franklin put together an easy 1:57.83.
Ledecky, meanwhile, went 1:55.75. That was the morning’s fastest showing and, as well, the fourth-fastest time in the world in 2014.
Allison Schmitt, the London 2012 200 gold medalist who curiously failed to qualify for the Barcelona team, missed out, again. She finished in 1:59.5, good only for 11th place.
The 200 free was the first event on Thursday evening’s sun-dappled program. Ledecky drew Lane 4, Franklin Lane 5.
By 100 meters, Ledecky was in the lead.
At 150 meters, Ledecky was riding noticeably higher in the water than Franklin.
The final turn sealed the deal.
Their splits over the back half of the race — that is, the final 100 meters — are instructive:
Ledecky: 29:58, 28.94.
Franklin: 29.94, 29.72.
Franklin’s finishing time of 1:56.4, it must be said, was 10th-fastest of 2014. She swam an excellent race.
It must also be noted that Franklin went on about 75 minutes later Thursday to win the 200 backstroke, in 2:08.38, and that no one came within two seconds of her.
Ledecky’s work for the night, however, was over. She had well and thoroughly won. Perhaps her only disappointment — though there was none of this to be spoken off, at least out loud — is that she had not gone under 1:55. The world-best time this year is 1:55.04, from Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom.
“I wasn’t really worried about the time,” Ledecky said afterward. “I just wanted to get into a good race and swim the best race I could.”
She also said, “The best part about my race was my tempo. I think I did a really good job of increasing my tempo throughout my race and my arms didn’t really die, so I was happy with that.”
Earlier in her career — it seems almost ridiculous to say “earlier in her career” of someone who is 17 but the phraseology is lacking in the English language — Ledecky would go out, race hard, just go, go, go. Now she has speed, endurance and discipline, as she showed Wednesday when she backed off world-record pace about halfway through the 800.
She also, as she proved Thursday, can bring it in a range of events, from the 200 up through distance categories. And, as she showed Wednesday, she is getting better in the 100.
In winning last year’s 200 in Barcelona, Franklin broke 1:55, going 1:54.81. Schmitt’s American record is 1:53.61, set in London in 2012. The world record is 1:52.98, which Italy’s Federica Pellegrini set in Rome at the height of the plastic-suit craze at the 2009 world championships.
Before the meet, Gemmel said he can now tell how Ledecky is swimming just by listening “to the swims,” likening it to the way a concert pianist can hear great music.
“Sometimes during practice he says that doesn’t sound like fast swimming, or that sounds like fast swimming,” Ledecky said.
He said, “I think one of Katie’s biggest growth areas over the last year is she can swim the races multiple ways. I think up until a couple years ago she was most comfortable with and only swam it real hard, going out from the start, but based upon her swims last summer in Barcelona that for various reasons we chose to swim different ways, and for the swims down in Texas, I think that’s her biggest growth area, that she can now swim back half, front half, middle half, every other lap, however we choose to swim it.
“We’ve done that before.”
And now, everyone?