Olympic Swimming: Can Katie Ledecky, 15, Top Golden Brit Rebecca Adlington?

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Olympic Swimming: Can Katie Ledecky, 15, Top Golden Brit Rebecca Adlington?
Katie Ledecky seeks gold at age 15.

Move over, Missy. There's a new kid in town. 

U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky, the youngest member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming squad, is among the top contenders in Friday's women's 800-meter freestyle competition. The 15-year-old could quell Great Britain's enormous expectations for defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington.

Ledecky, a native of Bethesda, Md., won her preliminary heat on Thursday in 8:23.84 to advance into Fridays 800 freestyle final. Only Adlington (8:21.78) and Denmark's Lotte Friis (8:21.89) finished with faster times in qualifying stages.

Adlington is 23 years old and Friis is 24. When the Olympics end, Ledecky will head home to prepare for her sophomore year of high school. 

She earned her way onto the U.S. squad with the performance of a seasoned veteran during June's U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Neb.. Ledecky shocked onlookers—and herself—by surging to what was at the time the world's second-fastest 800-meter freestyle finish of 2012.

“Four years ago, I never knew how to qualify for an Olympic trials,” Ledecky told the New York Times. “I thought it was an unreal thing."

“It’s just unbelievable to think back at where I was, and think about the work I’ve put in these last couple of months with my coach, Yuri Suguiyama. He’s really prepared me and I had a lot of confidence.”

Ledecky's final lunge to the wall came at the 8:19.78 mark, more than two seconds ahead of runner-up and World Championship bronze medalist Kate Ziegler. The powerhouse performance established a new U.S. Olympic Trials record in the 800 freestyle, breaking Katie Hoff's 2008 finish.

It was an incredible showing from a relative unknown. Now, can she stun the Olympic host by edging out Great Britain's Golden Girl in the 800 freestyle final?

Adlington attained gold in both the 400 and 800 freestyle competition at the 2008 Games in Beijing. She earned a bronze medal in the 400 final on Sunday, finishing behind France's Camille Muffat and American Allison Schmitt.

Ledecky could eventually become a medalist in the 400 freestyle as well. She narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympic race after settling for third at U.S. Trials (the top two finishers qualify). 

She was left on the doorstep despite establishing a new age-group record for fastest time by a 15- or 16-year-old swimmer (4:05). The record, previously held by Janet Evans, had held up since 1988.

Adlington, who established a world record when she won 800 freestyle gold in 2008, seemed to foresee a swimmer like Ledecky approaching on the horizon.  

"I was using Beijing as a stepping stone to gain experience for London and then it turned into something completely different that I never expected, and that I still can't believe now," she told Nick Hope. "But the same people don't win all the time in sport: nobody expected me to go to Beijing and get two gold medals and there's going to be someone else like that coming through."

Could Ledecky be the next swimmer to surprise Olympic prognosticators?

Success in Beijing has thrust Adlington into the spotlight, creating an overnight Olympic celebrity. A passionate home crowd will be on hand to cheer her on, hoping for a rare repeat champion. 

Ledecky, who was three years old when Michael Phelps participated in his first Olympics, would become an American sensation if she can cap of a terrific week of U.S. swimming with another gold medal.

After this, sophomore year should be a cinch.

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