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U.S. Olympic swimming trials: More pressure, more Ledecky

U.S. Olympic swimming trials: More pressure, more Ledecky
Swimmer Katie Ledecky speaks at a news conference during U.S. Olympic team trials on June 24.
(Orlin Wagner / Associated Press)

The picture sprawls 58 feet across the front of CenturyLink Center, one more reminder of how much has changed for Katie Ledecky in the last four years.

She arrived at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in 2012 as a relative unknown, another goosebump-covered 15-year-old trying to find her way at one of the sport’s highest-profile events.

That anonymity is a distant memory.

You can’t pass the site of the eight-day trials, which start Sunday, without noticing Ledecky’s face towering over the plaza below. The size of the picture testifies to her place as the world’s most dominant female swimmer as the Rio de Janeiro Olympics approach. She even took a selfie with it.

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“That’s a little different than four years ago,” Ledecky said.

As usual, her words are understated. There’s no glitz or self-promotion. She radiates normalcy, even admitting to excitement at scoring the goodie bags given to swimmers after they register at the trials. But little is normal about what Ledecky has accomplished in the pool since her unexpected gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle at the London Olympics.

Ledecky set three world records -- and captured five gold medals -- during a jaw-dropping performance at the World Aquatics Championships last year in Kazan, Russia. The flurry of world records continued in January when she reset the mark in the 800 freestyle. No one seems to know what feat is next.

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“Katie Ledecky can do whatever she wants,” said Elizabeth Beisel, the silver medalist in the 400-meter individual medley at the London Olympics.

Ledecky, however, will be but one story during the trials. Many among the approximately 1,800 participants regard the sold-out event as more challenging, more pressure-packed than the Olympics.

“I mean, it’s insane,” 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte said.

Added Michael Phelps, owner of 22 Olympic medals: “This is more pressure and more excitement here … than the Olympics for sure. It’s harder here.”

Phelps is continuing his comeback after a short-lived retirement following the London Olympics. His picture decorates the front of CenturyLink Center too, but he closed the blinds in his hotel room so he doesn’t have to look at it every day.

The 30-year-old is coy about his trials schedule -- that’s normal -- but believes he’s in a better place in life and in the pool than four years ago when he still managed two individual golds in London in what was supposed to be the final chapter in his storied career.

“Going into 2012, I just didn’t want to do it,” Phelps said. “I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing. I sure … wasn’t training. We all saw that. I tried to fake it, pretty much.

“I wanted to get in and out as fast as I could and really wanted nothing to do with it. So, you know, I think I’m just happier, a lot happier doing what I’m doing now and that’s why I’ve been successful over the last two years.”

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Phelps, who became a father earlier this year, insists he’ll be on the pool deck coaching at the 2020 trials.

The return means Phelps and Lochte will renew their longstanding rivalry for the final time.

“I kind of don’t want to think it’s coming to an end,” said the 31-year-old Lochte, who will also try and defend his Olympic gold in the rugged 400-meter individual medley. “Us pushing each other and having close races between each other, it brought a lot of people outside the sport into it.”

The same could be said of Missy Franklin, the effervescent 21-year-old who won individual golds in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke in London -- along with worldwide attention. Her times haven’t been as fast she hoped this year, but she is healthy, rested and bursting with her characteristic energy.

She punctuates sentences with “awesome” and rarely seems to be without a smile. Even discussions about little things, like hopping into the pool to warm up a couple of days ago, bring a torrent of enthusiasm.  

“I think overall my attitude, my optimism, [being] the bubbly girl that won’t stop talking on deck, that’s all exactly the same,” Franklin said. “But I’ve also grown a lot in the past four years. I’ve been through a lot more than when I was 17, so I have this new wisdom I’ve gained throughout the successes and the challenges.”

Nine of the 10 U.S. swimmers who won individual golds in London -- including Ledecky, Phelps, Lochte and Franklin -- will compete in the trials.

Competitors at the trials range in age from 13 to 36. There are veterans, like 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, hoping to qualify one last time. And there are up-and-coming swimmers, like Santa Clarita sprinter Abbey Weitzeil, trying to make their mark at the trials as Ledecky did four years ago.

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“It’s just an atmosphere unlike any other,” Ledecky said. “I think this atmosphere and environment is just as special as the Olympics and just as exciting, if not more so.”

Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter @nathanfenno

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno


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