LANE ONE: Tokyo 2020 swimming schedule will allow six medals each for Ledecky & Dressel

American superstar Freestyler Katie Ledecky

What will become one of the most hyped-up attractions of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo was perhaps decided very quietly on Wednesday.

The Tokyo organizers released the day-by-day schedule for the swimming events for the 2020 Games and with it, the medals ceilings for American superstars Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel.

For Ledecky, the event schedule shows the real possibility of medals in six events, but while she will be favored in three, it would be a Herculean effort to get to six and tie East Germany swimmer Kirsten Otto for the most gold medals by a woman in a single Games: six in 1988.

So what does the schedule show and what are Ledecky’s possibilities to make history? First, it’s important to note that the 2020 Olympic schedule – thanks to three added events in the men’s 800 m Freestyle, women’s 1,500 m Free and the mixed-gender 4×100 m Medley – has been extended from eight days in Rio to nine days in Tokyo. That’s good for swimmers with a heavy workload like Ledecky. Second, remember that the heats are in the evening and semis and finals in the morning:

∙ 25 July:
(p.m.) 4×100 m Freestyle heats

Ledecky has consistently swum in the Olympic Trials in the 100 m with the idea to make the relay team. Given the rest of the schedule, she might be on at least the 4×100 Free team in the prelims, so that if the U.S. won in the final (perhaps without her), she would get a medal. The U.S. won this event at the 2017 Worlds with Ledecky on third leg.

∙ 26 July:
(a.m.) 4×100 m Freestyle final
(p.m.) 400 m Freestyle heats

∙ 27 July:
(a.m.): 400 m Freestyle final
(p.m.): 1,500 m Freestyle heats

Ledecky will be the favorite in the 400 m Free, but Australia’s Ariarne Titmus is going to test her. But this early in the program, Ledecky will have an edge. Having to swim the mile prelims in the evening shouldn’t be more than a workout for Ledecky.

∙ 28 July:
(a.m.): 200 m Freestyle semis

This is essentially a rest day for Ledecky, as she should make the 200 m final without too much difficulty. But does she care about what lane she swims in for the final? But the stretching of the schedule from eight to nine days helps her here.

∙ 29 July:
(a.m.): 200 m Freestyle final
(a.m.) 1,500 m Freestyle final
(p.m.): 4×200 m Freestyle heats

A rough day: the 200 m Free final in which she finished second in the 2017 Worlds and third in the 2018 Pan-Pacific Championships is her toughest event by far. Then after an all-out effort, she will have to come back in about an hour to swim the 1,500 m, an event she has dominated. She likely won’t have to swim in the 4×200 m Free prelims.

∙ 30 July:
(a.m.): 4×200 m Freestyle final
(p.m.) 800 m Freestyle heats

She’ll be all-out for the 4×200 m Free, which Australia won at the 2018 Pan-Pacific Champs. Ledecky could be chasing a fifth gold in that race and if she wins it, would be an overwhelming favorite to win the 800 m the next day.

∙ 01 August:
(a.m.) 800 m Freestyle final

No doubt she’s the favorite in this race, which she won in London and Rio; will she win a sixth gold with a world record?

For those conjuring up ideas of Ledecky running after Mark’s Spitz’s 1972 total of seven golds or Michael Phelps and his eight golds in Beijing, it doesn’t seem possible. Ledecky is not a sprinter, so the 100 m Free is not realistic and she has not been able to master a second stroke, so although she has toyed with the 400 m Medley, she isn’t a medal contender by a long way. But, she could look for a six-pack to tie Otto, but will – as the song says – need a little help from her friends.

Dressel has the same issue: he needs help, but the Olympic program is only going to allow him to get to six golds if everything breaks right.

True, he won seven at the 2017 World Championships, but that was because the Worlds have the 50 m races in all strokes and not just in Freestyle. The nine-day schedule helps Dressel as well, but especially with the relays:

∙ 26 July:
(p.m.) 4×100 m Freestyle heats

∙ 27 July:
(a.m.) 4×100 m Freestyle final

∙ 28 July:
(p.m.) 100 m Freestyle heats
(p.m.) 4×200 m Freestyle heats

∙ 29 July:
(a.m.) 100 m Freestyle semis
(a.m.) 4×200 m Freestyle final

∙ 30 July:
(a.m.) 100 m Freestyle final
(p.m.) 100 m Butterfly heats
(p.m.) Mixed 4×100 m Medley

∙ 31 July:
(a.m.) 100 m Butterfly semis
(p.m.) 50 m Freestyle heats
(p.m.) 4×100 m Medley heats

∙ 01 August:
(a.m.) 100 m Butterfly final
(a.m.) 50 m Freestyle semis
(a.m.) Mixed 4×100 m Medley final

∙ 02 August:
(a.m.) 50 m Freestyle final
(a.m.) 4×100 m Medley final

Dressel’s workload appears lighter than Ledecky’s, but his medal count will depend on being the best U.S. sprinter, ahead of Michael Andrew – who won the U.S. 50 m Free and 50 m Fly titles in 2018 while Dressel was hurt – and other U.S. stars like Nathan Adrian and Blake Pieroni. Even so, if Dressel were to be in the same form as at the 2017 Worlds, he could win the 50-100 Frees, 100 Fly and on the 4×100 m Free Relay – that’s four possible golds – but it would be up to the coaches whether he swims the men’s 4×100 m Medley and/or the 4×100 m mixed-gender relay being introduced in Tokyo.

Could Dressel extend his range, say, to the 200 m Free, and by extension, the 4×200 m Free Relay? He hasn’t shown much aptitude for it, and the U.S. has two medal contenders already in Townley Haas and Andrew Seliskar, 1-2 at the 2018 Pan-Pacifics. But if he was good enough to make the relay, he could win a seventh gold if everything fell just right for him.

The key to the huge medal counts in swimming is the relays. In Munich, Spitz won four individual events and three relays. In Beijing, Phelps won five individual events and three relays. In Seoul, Otto won for individual events and two relays. Will the U.S. coaches indulge either Ledecky or Dressel with relay spots that might go to others? Maybe pop them into the heats to earn a medal, depending on what the U.S. team does in the finals?

U.S. Swimming announced its team for the 2019 World Championships on Wednesday, with Ledecky in the 200-400-800-1,500 m Frees and Dressel in the 50-100 m Freestyle and 50-100 m Butterfly … plus relays to be determined.

There’s a lot that can change between now and the Olympic Trials in Omaha in 2020, but with the schedule now in hand, we can see how high the ceiling could be for the U.S.’s brightest swim stars.

Rich Perelman
Editor