The World Championships in Budapest are underway, and despite some pessimistic predictions things are mostly going great for team USA. But a curious reader reached out to me to point out something strange that happened on Day 1. Why was Katie Ledecky on the 4x100 freestyle relay instead of Lia Neal?
The obvious argument is that Katie Ledecky is just such a great once in a generation phenomenon for women's swimming that she deserves the benefit of any doubt. She's the best swimmer in the world, although Sarah Sjostrom is making that closer than it's ever been for the past few years.
When Michael Phelps was the world's best, he swam on 4x100 free relays. For the brief period of time that is quite hard to remember when Ryan Lochte was the world's best, he swam on 4x100 relays. So Ledecky should swim on 4x100 relays? Right?
Well, there's a compelling argument that she shouldn't.
Lia Neal Earned It
Hindsight is 20/20 blah blah, but very objectively we can say that Lia Neal was faster than Ledecky yesterday, but that Ledecky swam on the relay. The decision didn't have any objective cost for the American team, as they still won gold semi-comfortably.
But Lia Neal was 53.9 in the morning from a flat start, and Ledecky produced 53.8 from a flying start at night. Swimming common sense dictates that Neal would have gain far more than .1 of a second from a flying start.
On top of the strong performance of Neal, there were other reasons to use her on the 4x100 relay that night. Ledecky had the 400 free final, while Neal otherwise had the night off. Again, I know Ledecky is superwoman, but swimming a 400 free final at the World Championships will greatly decrease the chance of an outstanding relay split.
And it did just so, where Ledecky swam a pedestrian (for her) 53.8 versus the 52.7 she scorched in Rio.
None of this is a knock on Ledecky, or on Neal for that matter. Both did their jobs yesterdays and the results were as good as they can be for the team. I can imagine that behind the scenes there was definitely some conflict over how to arrange that relay, especially with Greg Meehan having coached both swimmers.