Bruce Gemmell smiled and shook his head after being asked if he could come up with an American comparison to his star pupil, Katie Ledecky. Was there another swimmer with the potential to dominate races?
No one immediately came to mind.
In fact, the only comparison he could think of was Shane Gould, the Australian who held every world freestyle record from the 100 to the 1,500 meters in the early 1970s. Ledecky's not there yet, but that's how high her potential is, Gemmel said.
Ledecky, just 17, is showing that potential at the 2014 National Championships in Irvine. After dominating the 800-meter freestyle Wednesday, Ledecky followed that up by finishing more than a body length ahead of Missy Franklin to win the 200 freestyle Thursday.
The 200 free isn't usually classified as a sprint, but for the endurance-based Ledecky, "Everything under the 800 meters is a sprint."
"I've definitely improved and found that speed," Ledecky said after the race. "Over the past year I've gotten stronger and older, so I've sort of found that speed over the last couple months."
When Allison Schmitt, the reigning Olympic champion in the event, didn't qualify for the final, the 200 free became about Franklin, 19, and Ledecky. They are not just America's two best female swimmers, but two of the best in the world, young enough to be the faces of the sport for at least the next Olympic cycle.
It's hard to classify this as a rivalry, though. When Franklin and Ledecky ran into each other during news conferences Tuesday, they gave each other big hugs and smiled. Franklin later estimated that she hadn't seen Ledecky since November 2013, and told her, "It's so good to see you!"
Instead of talking trash, the two danced to the Backstreet Boys on the deck before Thursday's race. After Ledecky won, Franklin wrapped her arm around her and said, "She just makes me better, and I'm so grateful for that."
Because the two have different specialties, Ledecky estimates they've raced against each other only a handful of times.
For Franklin, that specialty is the backstroke. She holds the world record in the 200 meters and won gold in both the 100 and 200 backstroke in the 2012 London Olympics.
Thursday's result aside, the majority of Ledecky's success has come in longer events. She holds the world record in the 800 and 1,500 freestyle, and won the gold by more than four seconds in London.
Her races don't overlap with Franklin's that often.
"It's kind of hard when people do bring the rivalry aspect into it, because she has her goals and accomplishments and I have mine," Franklin said Tuesday. "It's hard when people start comparing them, because they're totally different, and I mean totally different things for both of us. I don't want her to feel like her accomplishments aren't as good as mine or mine aren't as good as hers."
At this point, the two young stars are talking more about the potential to be on the same freestyle relay team than the potential to beat each other. Franklin has had success in both the freestyle and medley relays, and the two were on the same 800 freestyle team that won gold in the 2013 World Championships. Ledecky said that she's training hard for the 200, not so she can compete with Franklin, but so that they could be on the same freestyle relay team.
The win Thursday sealed her spot on that team with Franklin at the Pan Pacific Games later this month.
Franklin won the women's 200 backstroke, beating the rest of the field by more than two seconds. Tyler Clary won the same event on the men's side, with Ryan Lochte finishing third. … Olympian Matt McLean won the men's 200 freestyle. … In the 200 breaststroke, Micah Lawrence won the women's competition and Kevin Cordes won the men's. … In the last individual events of the night, Kendyl Stewart won the women's 50 butterfly and Matt Grevers won on the men's side. ... Michael Phelps had the day off.