By Rebecca Harris
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS–The first thing you notice about Stanford freshman, Olympian, American- and world-record holder Katie Ledecky is her length–height, wingspan and the rest.
The second thing you notice is the multitude of crinkles around her eyes, as if she’s never frowned a day in her life.
After the second day of the NCAA Women’s Division I Swimming and Diving Championship, that will continue at least a little while longer.
Ledecky and company set an American record on the first night of competition Wednesday in the 800-free relay with a time of 6:45.91. In her only race during Thursday’s finals, Ledecky lit up the board with another American record in the 500-free individual event, with a time of 4:24.06. Yet, her customary smile never leaving her face, the perfectionist in her showed.
“I felt good about going with a 14-stroke count. I kind of crept up to 15 strokes by the second 25 tonight,” she said with a laugh. “Not to be nit picky or anything, but if I was a half second smoother, that first 200 might have been a little easier. It just shows the excitement of the meet: it got me going.”
In usual fashion, Ledecky was out in front early. But for those first 200 yards, Leah Smith, the Virginia senior, was right there with her. Smith is a four-time NCAA champion, going back-to-back in 2015 and 2016 in the 500-free, and an Olympic medalist, earning the bronze in the 400-free in Rio and a gold in the 4×200 freestyle relay. Aside from being teammates last summer, Ledecky had seen her race in NCAA meets the last several years. Smith had never broken the 4:30.00 barrier in the 500-free event. Until Thursday.
“I said to her at the end, ‘Welcome to the club,’” Ledecky said. “It’s one of the most exclusive clubs in short-course swimming so I was really happy for her.”
Ledecky’s victory was the only almost-sure thing of Stanford’s night. It became readily apparent that Thursday, and perhaps the rest of the competition, was going to be a battle between the Cardinals and California Golden Bears.
Apart from Ledecky’s record swim, Stanford won the 50-free thanks to Simone Manuel, and California earned points in the event with three swimmers in the A final. California and Stanford also went 1-2 respectively in the 200-free relay, 200-individual medley, and 400-medley relay.
However, disaster struck for the Golden Bears in that final relay of the night.
As California’s third swimmer Noemie Thomas came down the stretch, freshman Abbey Weitzeil prepared to keep Cal’s lead and got ready on the block. Weitzeil is an Olympian, earning medals as part of two relay teams in Rio. The emotions and the energy still got ahead of her and she began her powerful arc into the water before Thomas touched.
The Golden Bears were lining up along the diving well for the podium ceremony when the news was announced. They walked back along the path between the diving well and pool to applause from the Golden Bears’ fans in the audience.
“I understand what they’re going through and I’m disappointed for them. That’s a tough place to be in,” Stanford coach Greg Meehan said. “[But] At the end of the day, we’ll take the win.”
Stanford ended the day with 213 points as a team, with California trailing with 136. Texas and Georgia rounded out the top four with 119 and 112 points respectively.