U.S. Olympic swim trials: Ledecky dominates; Manuel and Dressel are back

Katie Ledecky swam a total of 6,000 meters in competition at the Olympic trials, winning all four of her events. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

After nine memorable days of competition at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the 2024 U.S. Olympic swimming trials concluded Sunday night with 46 swimmers -- 20 women and 26 men -- named to the team for Paris.

Throughout the event, there were multiple records broken, in and out of the pool. Gretchen Walsh (100-meter butterfly) and Regan Smith (100-meter backstroke) swam the fastest times in history, and the stadium claimed the largest crowd (20,689) for an indoor swim meet on the opening day of competition -- then broke that mark on the fifth day with 22,209 fans in attendance.

Here are the key takeaways from the event, and everything you need to know about the American team before the Olympics get underway next month.

Katie Ledecky did Katie Ledecky things

It's been long established that Katie Ledecky is one of the best swimmers of all time, but she further cemented her legacy -- and punched her ticket for Paris -- with yet another dominant performance in Indianapolis. Swimming a total of 6,000 meters(!) in competition, the 10-time Olympic medalist won all four of her events (200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, 800 freestyle and 1,500 freestyle) in mostly spectacular fashion.

But Ledecky wasn't completely satisfied. After winning the 1,500 final by more than 20 seconds over second-place finisher Katie Grimes, Ledecky -- who owns the top 19 times in world history in the race -- expressed some disappointment during an interview shown on the giant video screen.

"I would have wanted to swim a little faster but I'll take it," Ledecky said, before making what sounded like a promise. "I'll be better in a few weeks."

Despite winning the 200 freestyle, Ledecky is expected to compete at that distance only in the relay, and not as an individual, in Paris and will instead focus on the longer events. If she were to win gold in the 800 free -- and she will certainly be the favorite to do so -- she will join Michael Phelps as the only swimmers in history to win four gold medals in the same event.

The comeback kids

While Ledecky might make winning races look easy, it's obviously anything but. Countless swimmers over the years have candidly shared how hard the sport can be and the physical and mental toll it takes to routinely compete at a high level.

Simone Manuel and Caeleb Dressel, two of the biggest names in American swimming, both struggled with health issues after the Tokyo Olympics and required extensive time away from the pool. Both recently made their return to competition. And while there had been some questions about how they would fare at trials, Manuel and Dressel each made their third Olympic team -- and thrilled the crowds in the process.

Manuel, who was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome in 2021 and had to spend seven months away from any physical activity, finished in fourth place in the 100-meter freestyle on Wednesday and cemented her spot on the relay team. During the medal ceremony, she couldn't hide her emotions as she spoke to the crowd.

"It means everything to me," 27-year-old Manuel said through tears. "It's a miracle that I'm even able to stand up here and be able to race again. The people close to me know the journey it took to get here."

Then she saved the best for last. During the final night of competition on Sunday, Manuel, who had the fourth-fastest time in the semifinals, stunned the field by winning the 50-meter freestyle in 24.13 seconds, earning an individual spot on the team. Manuel later said she watched old videos of herself winning to remind herself that she could do it.

Dressel, also 27, spent eight months out of the pool after withdrawing from competition during the 2022 world championships for mental health reasons. In Indianapolis, he competed in fewer events than he had in 2021, but he won the 50-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly and qualified for the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

More familiar faces

Ledecky, Manuel and Dressel might be the three most recognizable stars on the team, but there is no shortage of established Olympians heading to Paris.

As mentioned above, three-time Tokyo Olympic medalist Regan Smith broke the world record in the 100 backstroke with a time of 57.13 seconds -- and then won the 200 backstroke and the 200 butterfly. Smith was considered a prodigy in the sport during her teenage years and first set the 100 backstroke world record as a 17-year-old in 2019. Now 22, Smith admitted in Indianapolis that she had struggled with self-doubt but finally felt confident in her abilities.

"There were many years that went by after 2019 where I thought that I would never do that ever again," Smith said. "I knew that I had it in me but for a long time, I didn't, so I'm really, really happy that I finally started to believe in myself."

Ryan Murphy, who won medals in Rio and Tokyo in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke, qualified in the top spot in both events and is now on his third Olympic team.

Five-time Olympic medalist Lilly King, an Indiana native who got engaged immediately following her last race of the competition, also made her third (and apparently final) team. She will become the first American swimmer to compete in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke in three consecutive Games.

Bobby Finke, 24, took home the gold medals in the 800 and 1,500 freestyle in Tokyo and will now look to defend both titles in Paris. He won both races convincingly in Indianapolis, including a more-than-12-second margin of victory over the rest of the field in the longer distance.

Breakout stars

Olympic trials seemed to be a coronation of some of the soon-to-be superstars of the sport, both domestically and around the globe, and was essentially a soft launch for Kate Douglass, Gretchen Walsh, Carson Foster, Chris Guiliano and Thomas Heilman.

Douglass, 22, competed in Tokyo and won bronze in the 200-meter medley, but the versatile swimmer seems to be on track to really shine in Paris. Douglass won the 200 medley, the 100 freestyle and the 200 breaststroke and will become the first American woman to compete in individual freestyle, breaststroke and individual medley events at an Olympics. Douglass is expected to be a part of multiple relay teams and could potentially have the chance to tie Natalie Coughlin's record for the most medals (six) at a single Olympics by an American female swimmer.

Walsh, a teammate of Douglass' at the powerhouse University of Virginia program, made her first Olympic team after narrowly missing out in 2021. After breaking the 100 butterfly world record -- in the semifinals, no less -- the 21-year-old will compete in Paris in that race, as well as in the 50 freestyle and as part of the 4x100-meter freestyle.

Foster also made his first Olympic team after being oh-so-close in 2021. This time around, the 22-year-old won the 200 and 400 individual medleys and will have a chance to challenge France's Leon Marchand for gold in both marquee events. Walsh and Foster spoke to the media together after making the teams on the second day of competition.

"I saw Carson after my race, and we just had the biggest hug," Walsh said. "We talked to each other about what it was like back in 2021 and related to each other. That's definitely a hard setback to process. And I'm so proud of both of us for coming back on top, and just doing exactly what we needed to do no matter the cost."

Guiliano was perhaps one of the biggest surprises of trials: He became the first American man to qualify for the 50-, 100- and 200-meter freestyle races at the same Games since 1988. An impressive feat no matter the circumstances, but considering the 20-year-old was the 29th seed in the 200, and the 10th seed in the 50, it becomes even more remarkable. Perhaps buoyed by the passionate Notre Dame fans in the crowd, the Fighting Irish senior became the first male swimmer from the school to qualify for the Olympics -- and proved he can step up when the stakes are highest.

And, finally, 17-year-old Heilman became the youngest man to make the team since Phelps in 2000 after winning the 200-meter butterfly. He will also be competing in the 100 butterfly after a second-place finish on Saturday. Heilman has long been hyped as the next great American star and the comparisons to Phelps are nothing new. But he didn't seem particularly fazed by it when speaking to the media.

"In terms of the Michael Phelps comparisons, it's always great to be in the same conversation as him, but I'm trying not to worry about that too much and trying to take things day by day," Heilman said.

Sibling duos

Two sets of siblings made the Olympic team in Indianapolis, marking the first time siblings have been on the team together since 2004.

Indiana native Aaron Shackell, 18, became the first swimmer to claim his ticket to Paris when he won the 400-meter freestyle. His younger sister Alex, 17, joined him several days later when she finished in second place in the 200 butterfly. Aaron was seen proudly cheering Alex on from the stands during her race, and he had spoken about how much she inspired him after his victory.

"I think Alex was the first one to give me confidence that I could be an Olympic swimmer, a decent swimmer at all," Aaron said. "She was always better than me when we were younger, and that kind of gave me the confidence that my family does have good swimming genes and that I could be good myself. Then seeing her, she was the first one to hug me after I came down the stairs. I feel like she was more excited that I made the team than with her own swim. I saw her after her swim this morning, she was excited, but when she saw me, she just told me I was an Olympian, and it was probably one of the best moments of my life."

Gretchen Walsh's older sister Alex, 22, qualified on Saturday for the 200-meter individual medley. A fellow Virginia swimmer, she won silver in the event in Tokyo and will look to return to the podium in Paris. After Gretchen made the team earlier in the week, Alex was one of the first people waiting to congratulate her.

And, as if the Walsh sisters didn't have enough support, three of their current and former UVA teammates (Douglass, Paige Madden and Emma Weber) also made the team, and Cavaliers coach Todd DeSorbo is at the helm of the U.S. women's team.

Bring on Australia!

After the Australian team earned the most gold medals at the 2023 world championships, eight-time Olympic medalist Cate Campbell gave an immediately viral interview to Australia's Channel 9 about her team's performance and winning more races than the U.S. team.

"Australia coming out on top is one thing, but it is just so much sweeter beating America," Campbell said. "There were a couple of nights, particularly the first night of competition, where we did not have to hear the 'Star-Spangled Banner' ring out through the stadium, and I cannot tell you how happy that made me. If I never hear that song again it will be too soon."

She also bashed the U.S. team's use of a cowbell whenever a swimmer leaves the warm-up area to go to the competition pool. "I have never wanted to punch someone more and steal that cowbell," Campbell added.

Well, fast-forward to Olympic trials. NBC showed Phelps the interview and, safe to say, he was fired up about what he was hearing. Phelps said he hoped the Americans were watching the clip every day as motivation before adding how it would have inspired him in the pool.

"I would literally make them eat every word they said about me," Phelps said.

Australia (minus recently retired Campbell) will be one of the Americans' biggest rivals in the pool in Paris, so expect this to become even more of a talking point as the Games approach. King added to NBC that she thought the Australians' disdain was "funny" but did admit she wanted to beat them too.

"Is it going to be worse if they beat us than somebody else? Yeah," she said.