IRVINE — If there’s a deadlock in the U.S. Swim schedule that’s waning enthusiasm and keeping some top racers out of the pool, it’s the middle of an Olympic quadrennial, halfway through the journey to the next Games.
But in every challenge there is also an opportunity, for champions and newcomers alike.
Katie Ledecky and Erin Gemmell took their chance to race Wednesday night at the Phillips 66 Nationals, which took place at the Woollett Aquatics Center two years before the Paris Olympics.
Ledecky, the seven-time Olympic gold medalist now training in Florida, shook off some sluggishness to rally past rising 17-year-old Gemmell in the women’s 200-meter freestyle final for her second U.S. title in as many nights.
Ledecky, 25, followed Gemmell by two-tenths of a second after lap one, but quickly took the lead en route to a winning touch of 1 minute, 54.50 seconds, her fastest time this year and one that would have claimed gold. at the recent FINA World Championships in Hungary.
But the world’s most decorated swimmer couldn’t dominate Gemmell, whose father coached Bruce Ledecky during her attendance at Nation’s Capital Swim Club in Virginia. The younger Gemmell shaved about a second off her best ever with a second place finish of 1:56.14.
Ledecky quickly congratulated Gemmell and the pair shared a high-five before leaving the pool.
“It’s amazing,” Ledecky told the audience about the time of Gemmell, who is ranked 10th in the world this year and second in American women’s history, after Ledecky. “She was there the whole time. To see her have such a massive drop is really excited for Team USA moving forward. ”
Ledecky said she “didn’t feel so sharp” during the morning preliminaries, but left “satisfied” after the final. Her final time is second in the world this year, after Olympic champion Ariarne Titmus, her Australian rival who clocked a 1:53.31 in May.
A few other newcomers also showed promise on Wednesday. Penn sophomore Matt Fallon dropped a second off his personal best in the 200 breaststroke with a blistering second half to win in 2:07.91, the fastest time by an American this year and the third fastest time in the world this year overall .
“This encounter was perfect for me to kind of pick myself up and do what I’m doing in the last 100,” said Fallon, who was seventh in the 100 but split a 1:04.50 in the back half.
Indiana Swim Club’s Mackenzie Looze, daughter of Indiana coach Ray Looze, also emerged from her club’s talented breaststroke group by winning the 200 in 2:25.35, more than two seconds short of her best ever. The 22-year-old trains with Olympians Lilly King and Annie Lazor, who are among the American stars this week.
The nationals continue on Thursday with the 400 individual medley and 100 butterfly.
Meet organizers have paid tribute to Orange County’s rich swimming history with the selection of award ceremonies. Bruce Furniss (a Foothill High product), John Moffet (Newport Harbor) and Sippy Woodhead (Nadadores) presented Wednesday after Jason Lezak (Irvine) and Brian Goodell (Mission Viejo) took turns on Tuesday.
All-County swimmer David Schmitt of San Juan Hills High and Evolution Racing Club was honored on Wednesday as the 18-and-under champion of the men’s 200 butterfly on Tuesday. The CIF-SS Division 1 and state champion finished 12th with a time of 1:59.02.