U.S. Olympic swim trials takeaways: Caeleb Dressel is back, Katie Ledecky is still here

INDIANAPOLIS — Two world records fell. Fourty-six roster spots were filled, and now the U.S. Olympic swimming team is set for the Paris Olympics.

Three-time Olympians Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel remain the roster’s headliners, but there are a number of potential breakout stars waiting in the wings, from the versatile Kate Douglass and speedy Gretchen Walsh to the surprising Chris Guiliano and the 17-year-old Thomas Heilman. The roster has a nice mix of veteran presence, youthful exuberance and even two pairs of siblings.

But what did we actually learn from a week spent watching elite athletes in a swimming pool built inside of an NFL stadium? And what does it mean for the upcoming Games?

Here are the most important takeaways from a week-plus in Indianapolis.

Katie Ledecky is still Katie Ledecky

The seven-time Olympic gold medalist has been the best distance swimmer in the world for a decade, and she is still the best distance swimmer in the world. Ledecky, 27, became the first woman to win the same event in four consecutive U.S. Olympic swimming trials by winning the 800-meter freestyle final this weekend. She also cruised to victory in the 1,500-meter freestyle (which only became an Olympic event at the last Games, in Tokyo) and the 400-meter freestyle. She even won the 200 free, though she said later that she would likely skip the individual event in Paris and just participate in the 4×200 free relay.

Ledecky did not break any of her own world records at this meet, nor did she seem particularly thrilled with her performances, even when she beat her fellow Americans handily. Her standard is higher than this, and that’s what keeps her focused as she trains what many of us would consider long, brutal and at-times boring events. She loves the workload and the grind, and that’s evident in the 800 and the mile, for sure. Those are the races in which we often see her swimming in the opposite direction of her closest competition — and where she might lap some unfortunate swimmers.

The 400 free is going to be a fascinating race for her in Paris, in large part because Ledecky won’t be the favorite to win it. That’ll be Australian Ariarne Titmus, the current world record-holder in the event. Canadian phenom Summer McIntosh will likely be considered more of a threat at that distance than Ledecky as well. At Ledecky’s absolute peak, she could win gold at every distance from 200 meters to the mile. Now, she’s still the best in the U.S. at all those distances — as evidenced by these trials — but she can’t always beat the best in the world at the shorter distances anymore. It creates an interesting dynamic right out of the gate at the Paris Games, with the 400 free final taking place on the very first night.

Katie Ledecky

At 27, Katie Ledecky roared into her third Olympics, winning four freestyle events and flashing her usual dominance in the long-distance races. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

Caeleb Dressel is back! So is Regan Smith! And Simone Manuel!

Ledecky wasn’t the only star who delivered on the big stage this week. Seven-time Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel won both the 100-meter butterfly and 50-meter freestyle finals, so he’ll swim both individual events in Paris in addition to the 4×100 free relay. It’s not quite the same program he had at the Tokyo Games — he took gold in the men’s 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly in addition to the relays — but it’s certainly enough to cement his status again as one of the faces of the Olympics for Team USA.

And it’s a big deal for Dressel himself. He took an eight-month break from swimming from mid-2022 to early 2023, abruptly withdrawing from the 2022 world championships and disappearing from the spotlight, his coach describing it as a mental health matter. And at the 2023 U.S. national championships, Dressel failed to qualify for the 2023 world championships. He’s spoken about needing that time away from the sport and how it drew him back. He’s certainly back and, at age 27 and a new father, still one of the best in the world at what he does best.

Another swimmer who struggled between Tokyo and now is Regan Smith. She opened up in Indianapolis about how little faith she had in herself as a swimmer in the leadup to the COVID-delayed Tokyo Games and in the immediate aftermath. She changed coaches and started seeing a sports psychologist and regained her confidence. And here at Lucas Oil Stadium, she set a new world record in the women’s 100-meter backstroke with a time of 57.13 seconds. Then she won the women’s 200-meter backstroke final as well as the 200-meter butterfly final, giving her a heavy workload for Paris. Smith said it’s been a long time since she’s performed as well as she did here in a big meet, and that she hopes to do the same in France. It’s hard to imagine she won’t.

Meanwhile, five-time Olympic medalist Simone Manuel splashed and dashed her way to a win in the women’s 50-meter freestyle at trials to secure her a spot in an individual event at the Paris Olympics. Manuel, 27, had already qualified for her third Olympic team as part of the 4×100 freestyle relay. And while she was emotional and happy to make Team USA after a challenging few years following a diagnosis of overtraining syndrome that wrecked her body and required five months away from the pool, she also clearly felt disappointed by not qualifying as an individual in the event. To boost her confidence heading into the 50 free final, she watched old races that she’d won — to remind herself she’s a winner. Then, she proved it.

The University of Virginia women are as good as advertised

Since head coach Todd DeSorbo took the reins seven years ago, the UVA women’s swimming program has been nothing short of a powerhouse, winning four consecutive national championships. And now his biggest stars are about to be Team USA’s biggest stars. USA Swimming put UVA alum Kate Douglass’ face on the outside of Lucas Oil Stadium, knowing that she’d dazzle inside — which she did, winning the 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter breaststroke and 200-meter individual medley events impressively. She will be the first American woman to compete in an individual freestyle, breaststroke and IM event at a single Olympics.

Meanwhile, current Cavalier Gretchen Walsh set a new world record in the 100-meter butterfly — in the semifinals! — before qualifying for her first Olympic team. She’ll swim the 100 fly and the 50 free in Paris, in addition to the 4×100 free relay. All that, after years of Walsh being told she was only good at short-course swimming (because more of the race takes place underwater due to the turns) and couldn’t be elite in long course. A world record does quite a bit to quiet those critics, you’d think. And her sister and teammate, Alex, made her second Games with a second-place finish in the 200 IM.

Throw in a surprise Olympic qualification in the 100-meter breaststroke by Emma Weber and including Paige Madden (an alum who now trains elsewhere) in the 400 and 800 freestyles as well as the 4×200 free relay, and that’s a lengthy list of female swimmers with Cavalier ties on this particular Olympic team.

Oh, and by the way, DeSorbo has already been named the head women’s coach for the U.S. team, so he’ll be coaching all these swimmers from the pool deck at the Games. The UVA influence on Team USA has already been quite significant — and should be one of the keys to success in Paris, too.

Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass

Virginia teammates Alex Walsh, left, and Kate Douglass both qualified for Paris in the 200-meter individual medley at U.S. Olympic trials. (Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

The rivalry between the U.S. and Australia is alive and well

Last summer at world championships, the Aussies topped the Americans with 13 gold medals to Team USA’s seven. As they typically do in this sport, the Americans won the overall medal count (38), but that won’t be satisfactory in Paris. USA Swimming president and CEO Tim Hinchey III said before trials that the organization’s goal is to both win the swim meet (aka earn the most medals possible) and to win the gold-medal count. The Australians will have a lot to say about that.

And they’re already talking. Speaking of the medal count at worlds … Last summer, four-time Olympian Cate Campbell went on Australia’s Channel 9 and said it’s great that Australia topped the gold medal count but “it is just so much sweeter beating America. … (On) the first night of competition, we did not have to hear ‘Star Spangled Banner’ ring out through the stadium. I cannot tell you how happy that made me. If I (ever) hear that song again it will be too soon. Bring on Paris. That’s all I have to say to the U.S. Stop being sore losers.” NBC filmed 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps watching and reacting to the clip of Campbell, and he grew agitated. He said if a competitor spoke like that about him, he’d “make them eat every word they just said about me” and that he hoped the Americans use the clip as motivation.

“Well, the good news is the Olympics will be here shortly, and we’ll be able to see what the results are,” Phelps said.

The rivalry became something of a theme throughout the broadcasts of U.S. trials, understandably setting the stage for very spirited and competitive races between stars from both countries at the Games. The Aussies will be particularly formidable on the women’s side (including the freestyle relays), led by Titmus, the main rival of Ledecky. Those two will first square off in the 400 free on the very first night of the Olympics.

Thomas Heilman has arrived — at all of 17 years old

There’s a ton of pressure that comes along with being a young American male swimmer who is particularly good at the butterfly stroke. The comparisons to Phelps are so frequent it’s almost a little cliche. But what happens if you live up to the hype? Heilman, who turned 17 in February, won the 200-meter butterfly to qualify for his first-ever Olympics and followed that up with a second-place finish in the 100 fly (while breaking an age-group record held by Phelps for more than two decades). Heilman will be the youngest American man to swim in multiple individual events at one Games since Brian Goodell did it in 1976.

The Crozet, Va., native is committed to the University of Virginia (of course). He also says he likes to do typical teenager activities when he’s not swimming; he hangs out with his friends, likes to shoot hoops or swing a golf club, and he loves watching college football in the fall. But his life is undoubtedly about to change.

Caeleb Dressel and Thomas Heilman

Caeleb Dressel, left, and 17-year-old Thomas Heilman celebrate after qualifying for Paris in the 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. (Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

Other notes

• There are two sets of siblings on the U.S. swim team headed to Paris. In addition to the Walsh sisters, Aaron Shackell qualified in the 400 free, while his 17-year-old sister Alex qualified with a top-two finish in the 200 fly. It’s the first time the U.S. swim team has had siblings on it since 2004, and it has a pair.

• Swimmers always say that U.S. trials is the toughest swim meet in the world, because only the top-two finishers in each event make the team and the third-place finisher is still probably one of the best swimmers in the world in that event. Jack Aikins was the poster child for such pain this year, finishing third in the 100-meter backstroke and then in the 200 backstroke. Combined, Aikins finished just .19 seconds from a spot on the Olympic team.

• Another notable name not headed to Paris: Lydia Jacoby, who stunned the world and herself by winning gold in the 100-meter breaststroke in Tokyo. She finished third in the event in Indianapolis and scratched the 200 breaststroke. She said it might be too difficult for her to watch the 100 breaststroke event at the Olympics on television and hoped to plan some fun activities for the summer to take her mind off things.

• Katie Grimes, 18, became the first American woman to qualify for an open water event and an indoor pool event in the same Games. She had already qualified for open water, and then this week qualified to compete in the 400 IM and the 1,500 free. It’s her second Olympics; she was the youngest athlete on the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo.

• For the third straight Olympics, Ryan Murphy, 28, will go as the top U.S. hope in the men’s backstroke. Murphy won both the 100- and 200-meter events at trials to book a spot in Paris. He won gold in both events in Rio in 2016, then took bronze in the 100 and silver in the 200 in Tokyo.

• Carson Foster has taken the torch from Chase Kalisz, who took the torch from Phelps (and Ryan Lochte). Foster, 22, is the face of the American men’s individual medley after wins in both the 400 IM and the 200 IM in Indianapolis. French star Léon Marchand will be favored to win both events at the Games, but Foster is the best American hope for the foreseeable future in two absolutely grueling events.



At the Olympics, a murky question for the Seine: Will it be clean enough to swim in?

(Top photo of Caeleb Dressel celebrating his win in the 100-meter butterfly final at U.S. Olympic trials: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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