The crowd inside the CHI Health Center roared, bells clanged, and the public address announcer boomed over the commotion.
“Katie Ledecky is doing what Katie Ledecky does,” he bellowed. “Do not let it pass over you.”
Ledecky makes the extraordinary look routine, so much so that announcers feel obligated to remind spectators that what they’re witnessing isn’t normal. The five-time Olympic gold medalist who threatens world records each time she dives into the pool added to her legend Wednesday night during the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
About an hour after winning the 200-meter freestyle, Ledecky returned to the pool to capture the 1,500 freestyle and complete the grueling double.
“It ranks up there,” the 24-year-old said.
The words, as usual, were understated. The result wasn’t.
During the last three days, Ledecky swam seven races totaling 4,400 meters. That packed schedule included winning the 400 freestyle and, during a break Wednesday morning, a brief trip outside where she bumped into four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans.
“I think it’s hard,” Ledecky’s coach Greg Meehan said of the schedule. “But you know, one of the things that she’s gotten better at is compartmentalizing things.”
That ability is one of the reasons why Ledecky will challenge for four individual gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics next month. The performance Wednesday underlined her unique ability.
Ledecky pulled away in the final 50 meters of the 200, turning a relatively close race into an routine victory. She finished in 1:55.11, about two seconds off the top time in the world this year by Australia’s Ariame Titmus, but enough to best second-place Allison Schmitt by 1.68 seconds. Schmitt, who holds the American record in the event, qualified for her fourth Olympics.
“There’s definitely tears and excitement,” said Schmitt, who edged third-place Paige Madden by one-hundredth of a second.
For almost any other swimmer, the victory would be plenty. Not Ledecky. She swam in the warmup pool for 15 or 20 minutes, then returned to the main pool deck for the 200 award ceremony. She walked slowly to conserve energy, ate a banana and drank chocolate milk. The only hitch came when Ledecky stumbled over her words after Brendan Hansen, the in-arena host and six-time Olympic medalist, asked a question.
“I can’t talk when I’m trying to warm down,” Ledecky told the arena through laughter.
She paused to toss a bouquet of flowers received by each winner to a young girl in the stands, returned to the warmup pool, kept moving and was swimming the 1,500 by 8:31 p.m. She didn’t go through a traditional warmup, but it didn’t matter.
The event is being added to the women’s Olympic program this year — leading to the unusual situation of Ledecky swimming a 200 and 1,500 in the same night — but she has dominated it for almost a decade. Ledecky first broke the world record in the event in 2013 and owns the 11 fastest times in history.
By the final minutes of the race Wednesday, she was in a familiar position. All alone. That’s when the announcer implored the crowd to not take the effort for granted.
“I’ve always enjoyed the distance, the training and work it takes to put together a good mile,” Ledecky said. “I was pleased with how it felt tonight.”
She finished in 15:40.50, the top mark in the world this year and 14th-fastest all-time, almost 11 seconds in front of second-place Erica Sullivan.
Ledecky still has the 800 freestyle preliminaries and final remaining during the trials that end Sunday. She holds the world record in that too.
But the most challenging part before her third trip to the Olympics is over. And as Ledecky spoke for a few minutes during a virtual news conference Wednesday night, she didn’t even look tired.