U.S. Open Women’s Preview: Katie Ledecky, Summer McIntosh Set for 400 Freestyle Battle as Olympic Prep Heats Up


by DAVID RIEDER – SENIOR WRITER

27 November 2023, 06:19am

U.S. Open Women’s Preview: Katie Ledecky, Summer McIntosh Set for 400 Freestyle Battle as Olympic Prep Heats Up

For the majority of the top swimmers in the United States, this weekend’s U.S. Open will mark their first major competition since this summer’s World Championships, a meet where the U.S. captured 38 medals but only seven gold, well behind Australia’s impressive 13 gold medals. The U.S. Open, a three-and-a-half-day meet held in Greensboro, N.C., following the NCAA Championships event order, should be considered a checkpoint, a chance for high-level racing experience with relatively low stakes.

That means if someone swims poorly, no problem. Plenty of work and refinement to go in the six-and-a-half months before the meet that really matters, the U.S. Olympic Trials. However, swimmers can certainly swim their way onto the radar or boost their standing in the status quo of American swimming with impressive efforts in Greensboro.

The full psych sheet is available here, and here are some of the swimmers and storylines to watch on the women’s side entering the meet:

1. Ledecky vs. McIntosh in 400 Freestyle

The last time 26-year-old American Katie Ledecky and 17-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh raced each other, both took a backseat to Ariarne Titmus, who reclaimed the 400 free world record from McIntosh on her way to a dominant, world-title-winning performance . Ledecky placed second in that race while McIntosh ended up a shocking fourth. However, McIntosh would rebound in Fukuoka as she defended her gold medals in the 200 butterfly and 400 IM while Ledecky made history with her sixth consecutive world title in the 800 free plus her fifth gold in the 1500 free.

Don’t expect any world-record fireworks in Greensboro, but watching McIntosh and Ledecky race over eight lengths is always a treat for swimming fans. The two have contrasting styles in the 400 free, with McIntosh more likely to blast out the opening portion of the race while Ledecky swims a more steady race. We’ll see if they can get into sub-4:00 territory this early in the calendar, and whatever times they clock will undoubtedly be compared to anything Titmus swims as she races at various Australian state championship meets.

Ledecky will also try to keep pace with Siobhan Haughey in the 200 free, and in the longer-distance races, don’t be surprised if Ledecky swims times quicker than any other female in history. McIntosh is also entered in the 200 and 400 IM, 200 backstroke and 200 breaststroke.


2. Gretchen Walsh Takes Scintillating Form to Long Course

It has been an epic start to the college season for University of Virginia third-year Gretchen Walsh. After impressive early dual meet swims, Walsh swam the fastest times ever in the 50-yard free and 100-yard fly at the Tennessee Invitational while also blasting the quickest 100 free relay split ever and moving to just outside the top-10 in history in the 200 free. Up next? Long course at the U.S. Open.

Walsh made huge strides in the 50-meter course in 2023, qualifying for her first major international meet before winning one medal of each color at the World Championships, including individual bronze in the 50 fly and helping the American women’s 400 medley relay team to gold. Given her recent jumps in short course, should we expect best times this week? It’s not out of the question, and Walsh already ranks at or near the top of the American ranks in the 50 and 100 free plus 100 fly as she seeks her first Olympic berth next year.

The race in the 100 fly will feature her main American competition, American-record holder Torri Huske plus Virginia training partners Kate Douglass and Claire Curzan while all the top American sprinters, including Huske, Douglass, Curzan, Abbey Weitzeil and Olivia Smoliga, are all set for the U.S. Open as well, with Haughey providing extremely stiff competition in the 100 free. Even with the focus on the college season right now, this meet will provide a good indicator as to whether Walsh has another huge jump coming in long course.


3. Claire Curzan Swims First Meet with Virginia

Speaking of Virginia-trained athletes, Claire Curzan will be racing in non-intrasquad competition for the first time since transferring to the Cavaliers at the end of the summer. Curzan missed the World Championships team this summer, but she accepted a spot on the Worlds team for Doha this February as a chance for the high-level international racing she missed out on in 2023. In Greensboro, she will race all of her main events: the 50 and 100 free, 100 and 200 back and 100 fly.

Curzan is just 18 months removed from winning World Championships bronze in the 100 back as she carried a huge event load for Team USA at the 2022 edition of the global meet. Her performances at June’s U.S. Nationals were not indicative of her capabilities as she had been battling illness (but still was not far away from the team). We’ll get a sense here how she stacks up in each event and what might provide her best chances at qualifying for a second Olympic Games.

We know the fields in the sprint freestyle and 100 fly are full of all the main U.S. contenders, and it’s the same story in backstroke, with Regan SmithKatharine Berkoff, Smoliga, Rhyan WhitePhoebe Bacon and Kennedy Noble all in town. When the dust settles, don’t be surprised if Curzan is best-positioned in the 200 back as she has been quickly improving in that event in recent years before clocking 2:06.35 in a third-place finish at Nationals this summer.


4. Regan Smith Hoping to Counter Kaylee McKeown

The women’s backstroke events in 2023 belonged to Kaylee McKeown, who won world titles in all three and broke world records in all three, but Smith still had her best season in four years while taking three backstroke silver medals plus 200 fly bronze and medley relay gold at Worlds. Smith has not raced long course yet this fall, but she did clobber the American record in the 200-yard fly while racing exhibition at an Arizona State dual meet, a good sign that her progress under coach Bob Bowman is continuing to progress in year two of their partnership.

At the U.S. Open, Smith is entered in her three main events plus the individual medley races. She has made major improvements to a previously-lackluster breaststroke that put her in position to challenge the top 200 IMers in the country this year, and the event lineup at the U.S. Open means that she will likely race McIntosh, Douglass and Alex Walsh, who happen to be four of the top seven performers in history. But it will be intriguing to see what kind of times she can clock in the backstroke events, a test of her current training as she prepares to challenge McKeown once again in Paris.


5. What’s Next for Lilly King?

There’s nothing Lilly King can prove at the U.S. Open. She still has not lost the 100 breaststroke on American soil since 2015, and she has been among the two swimmers representing the Stars and Stripes in the 200 breast at every major meet since her senior-level international debut at the 2016 Olympics. But for King, who turns 27 in February, her international results have not been as strong. She still won medals in both the 100 and 200 breast at the Tokyo Olympics, and in 2022, King won the 200 breast world title despite being sick shortly before the meet. She narrowly missed the podium in the 100 breast.

King’s struggles at the 2023 Worlds were most surprising, as she did not win a medal in either the 100 or the 200 breast despite entering the meet as the strong world-title favorite over two laps and the defending champion over four. She finished the meet strongly with a 50 breast silver and a strong leg on the U.S. women’s gold-medal-winning 400 medley relay. Leading into the Olympic year, King wants to continue her high level of racing in domestic meets to provide herself with a third Olympic opportunity and a chance at returning to gold-medal form.

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