Zaccardi: Katie Ledecky, Sarah Sjostrom primed for 200m freestyle battle, world records and gold medals in hand
RIO DE JANEIRO – Take a look at the world rankings in the women’s 200m freestyle for this year, and you will see this:
1. Sarah Sjöström (SWE) – 1:54.34
2. Katie Ledecky (USA) – 1:54.43
Yes, the great Ledecky shattered her 400m freestyle world record on Sunday night, but it’s time to look ahead. The toughest individual race on her Olympic schedule starts Monday afternoon.
That’s the 200m freestyle.
Rewind to the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia. Ledecky wins the 200m freestyle in 1:55.16.
The field she beat did not include Sjöström, who favors the 100m butterfly and 100m freestyle and did not enter the 200m free at Worlds.
But, Sjöström did swim leadoff on Sweden’s 4x200m freestyle relay at Worlds and clocked 1:54.31, the fastest time in the world since the 2012 Olympics.
If Sjöström had entered the 200m free final that week and repeated that time, she would have spoiled the “Ledecky Slam.”
“I bet that she’ll swim that event [the 200m free] in Rio,” Ledecky said of Sjöström at Worlds. “I’ve never had the opportunity to race her yet, so, hopefully, I’ll get that chance.”
Ledecky got that chance earlier than expected this past January. Sjöström traveled to the U.S. to compete in a grand prix-level meet in Austin, Texas.
And this time the 22-year-old, with the Olympic rings tattooed over the Swedish flag on her arm, did swim the 200m free. But it wasn’t the best gauge for Rio predictions.
Ledecky was obviously rested for the Austin meet because she set personal bests in the 100m, 200m and 800m frees.
Sjöström was obviously not.
Ledecky crushed her, 1:54.43 to 1:55.14.
Then came the Swedish Championships in July. There, Sjöström swam that 1:54.34 to push Ledecky from No. 1 to No. 2 in the world rankings this year.
On Sunday night, Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, couldn’t help but notice that both Ledecky and Sjöström lowered their world records in winning gold medals. Ledecky in the 400m free; Sjöström in the 100m butterfly.
“Both of them swam really well tonight, and maybe they’ll meet in the middle,” in the 200m free, Gemmell said.
Sjöström previously said that if she won the 100m butterfly, she would do the samba on Copacabana Beach, which is interesting for this reason: it’s unclear how seriously the Swede takes the 200m freestyle.
Yes, Sjöström has a unique personality.
"I swam wearing earrings today, and I've never done that before,” she said Sunday night, “and I listened to music for the first time before a race. Why not?" She also chilled in the afternoon by playing Yahtzee.
The Associated Press didn’t even pick Sjöström to make the 200m free podium in pre-Games medal projections.
In the 4x100m freestyle relay Saturday, Ledecky had a best split of 52.64 seconds, fantastic for her in an off-event. Sjöström split 52.47, best of any swimmer who is entered in the 200m freestyle.
So Ledecky isn’t taking her that lightly.
“She’s a tough competitor and is obviously swimming really well right now,” Ledecky said Sunday night in her post-victory press conference, shortly after Sjöström’s post-victory press conference. “We have three rounds starting tomorrow.”