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As the American trials begin, Katie Ledecky focuses on Olympic history

INDIANAPOLIS – Right where the orange pole would normally mark the corner of the south end zone at cavernous Lucas Oil Field, Katie Ledecky hung from the wall of a 50-meter pool Saturday morning and waited for her fellow competitors to finish their competition. 400 meter freestyle heat. In those few moments, it was possible to look around and marvel at the massive transformations that underpinned the 2024 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

An NFL stadium converted into the largest natatorium the world has ever seen.

A quadrennial swim meet that, thanks in no small part to the star power of Ledecky and a small handful of teammates, has become so big that it would take an NFL stadium to contain it.

And Ledecky’s own transformation, over the course of twelve memorable years on these stages, from teen sensation to legendary icon.

During Ledecky’s first swim on the first day of the nine-day trials, where Team USA will choose the squad that will head to Paris next month for the 2024 Summer Games, she sped through the eight lengths of the 400 free in a time of 3 minutes 59 .99 seconds, almost 6½ seconds faster than anyone else in her heat. She would be seeded first in Saturday night’s final, trying to clinch a spot in her fourth Olympics.

Half a lifetime ago, on June 26, 2012, Ledecky dived into the pool for the first time in her life in Omaha during an Olympic trial, also for the preliminaries of the 400 free. At the age of 15, she was the youngest swimmer in her heat for almost a year and a half. Her first name was then listed as ‘Kathleen’ on the heat sheets, the meeting program and the television broadcast. Those trials, like those in 2016 and 2021, took place in a converted basketball arena with a capacity of approximately 13,000 seats.

Ledecky, then a rising sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, failed to earn an Olympic berth in the 400, but won the 800 free five days later to punch her ticket to the London Games. There, as the youngest swimmer in the final by some four years, she stunned the sport by winning the gold medal, marking the start of one of the most storied Olympic careers of this generation.

On Saturday, Ledecky stood in the converted home of the Indianapolis Colts, with a configured capacity of approximately 30,000 seats, as a seven-time Olympic champion. At 27, she was the oldest swimmer in her heat by more than five years.

Her longevity, coupled with her continued excellence, has brought her to the brink of all kinds of history this summer. Two more gold medals in Paris, for example, would see her leap past compatriot Jenny Thompson for the most by a swimmer in Olympic history.

With the U.S. Trials among the last on the global calendar, the American swimmers competing here have the advantage – or perhaps the added pressure – of seeing what times their international rivals have previously posted in their own trials.

In Ledecky’s case, for example, by the time she dived off the blocks for Saturday’s 400 free, she knew that Canada’s Summer McIntosh had swum a 3:59.06 and Australia’s Ariarne Titmus had swam a scorching 3:55.44, the second-best fastest of all time. -time, during their respective national processes.

Ledecky, McIntosh and Titmus have all held the 400 free world record over the past 25 months, with Titmus taking it from Ledecky, McIntosh taking it from Titmus and Titmus finally taking it back with a 3:55.38 last summer at the world championships in Fukuoka, Japan . In that race, Ledecky (3:58.73) finished a distant second, while McIntosh (3:59.94) dropped all the way to fourth.

The head-to-head rematch in Paris this summer is already getting some sort of race-of-the-century hype, even though all evidence points to Titmus distancing herself from her rivals.

“I know I have to be very fast in that event to compete for gold, or even win a medal,” Ledecky said earlier this year about the 400 free.

Although Lucas Oil Stadium was less than half full for the morning prelims on Saturday, the crowd roared to life as Ledecky came down the stretch in her heat of the 400, and Ledecky matched its intensity.

Although she clearly took it easy during the second half of the race – wisely saving her energy for the evening finale – she unleashed a thrilling final length of 28.87 seconds. How fast is that? It was a faster finish to the 50 than Ledecky swam to win the gold medal in the 400 free at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, in what was then a world record of 3:56.46. It was faster than her last 50 in winning silver at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

It was also the exact time – 28.87 – that Titmus had clocked in the last 50 of her world record swim of 3:55.38 last summer in Fukuoka.

It could be that Ledecky sent a message with Saturday’s final 50. The message essentially read, “Don’t count me out.” Her coach at Gator Swim Club in Gainesville, Florida, Anthony Nesty, is among those who think she still has a monster 400 in her.

“She is very capable. I see it in practice all the time,” said Nesty, who will be the head coach of Team USA this summer in Paris. “Personally, I think she can do a very good 400. Because the last two years have been good, but not at a level where she wants to compete. I think she’s way overdue to put one together.