OMAHA, UNITED STATES (AFP) - World record holder Katie Ledecky is on her way to a Tokyo Olympic showdown with Australian Ariarne Titmus, locking up her 400m freestyle spot with a victory at the US Olympic swimming trials on Monday (June 14).
Ledecky was virtually unchallenged when she won the 400m free at the Rio Olympics in a world record of 3min 56.46sec.
But Titmus - who toppled Ledecky in the 400m free at the 2019 World Championships - fired an Olympic warning shot this week when she threatened the world record in winning the 400m free at the Australian trials in 3:56.90.
Their next clash suddenly looks to be leaning in the Australian's favour as Ledecky, who was close to her world record pace at the 200m mark on Monday, touched in 4:01.27 for a comfortable win over Paige Madden (4:04.86).
"It wasn't the best-feeling 400," admitted Ledecky, who was more than two seconds off her best time of the year of 3:59.25 at the Mission Viejo Pro Swim in April.
"I thought I would go a little faster than that, but I'll take it for now."
The 24-year-old who is targeting an ambitious Tokyo programme of 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyles, said she was just happy to be on her way to Tokyo at last after the one-year pandemic delay.
"It felt pretty surreal that we were about to walk out for a trials final," said Ledecky, who spoke to reporters via virtual mixed zone but opted out of the usual winner's press conference on her coach's advice with both the 200m and 1,500m free preliminaries on her schedule on Tuesday.
"A year ago I didn't think we would even be here, so it is nice to just lock in my spot."
Another four swimmers are headed to the Olympics for the first time, with Torri Huske leading a one-two of teenagers in the women's 100m butterfly.
Huske, 18, grabbed her first Olympic berth in sensational style with a world-leading time of 55.66sec.
The 18-year-old notched her second American record in as many nights as she stamped herself a legitimate threat to reigning Olympic champion Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, who set the world record of 55.48sec in winning gold in Rio.
"I don't even know what to do," Huske said.
"I've been thinking about this a lot. I feel like it hasn't really sunk in. It's really crazy."
She will spearhead a youthful US challenge in the event after 16-year-old Claire Curzan finished second in 56.43.
Rio Olympian Kelsi Dahlia finished fourth as the expected trend toward youth in this year's US team gained steam.
Huske said the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus pandemic had actually benefited her.
"I feel like it really helped me because I was able to work on my strength training," she said. "I feel like it makes a big difference in my second 50."
Michael Andrew emerged victorious in a fierce 100m breaststroke battle, holding off Andrew Wilson by one one-hundredth of a second.
Wilson surged from fourth at the turn to seize second place at the wall as Nic Fink, second at the turn, was denied.
Andrew, a 22-year-old touted as Olympic material since he turned pro at 14, could not match the American record of 58.14sec he set in the semi-finals.
But his time of 58.73sec was enough to punch his ticket to Tokyo.
"It's still hard to believe it's real," said Andrew, who later returned to qualify for Tuesday's 100m backstroke final.
"I remember walking down the stairs after not making the team as a 17-year-old (in 2016). To rectify that is a dream come true."
Ledecky, who burst on the international scene at the age of 15 with her 800m free victory at the 2012 London Olympics, welcomed the arrival of new blood.
"It's exciting to see some young swimmers coming up," she said. "Seeing Torri's ear-to-ear grin on the medal stand gave me chills."