IRVINE, Calif. — Katie Ledecky beat defending champion Missy Franklin to win the 200-meter freestyle in a showdown of teen swimming queens Thursday night at the U.S. national championships. Franklin returned 75 minutes later to win the 200 backstroke.
Ledecky led the last 150 meters of the 200 free and touched in a career-best 1 minute, 55.16 seconds — second-fastest in the world this year. She won the 800 free on opening night, and she owns world records in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles.
"The best part of my race was my tempo," she said. "My arms didn't really die."
Franklin was second in 1:56.40, and Leah Smith finished third in 1:57.57.
Michael Phelps had the night off after finishing next-to-last in the 100 free Wednesday. He returns Friday in the 100 butterfly, perhaps his best chance to qualify for the U.S. team at the Pan Pacific Championships.
Olympic champion Tyler Clary came from behind to win the 200 backstroke in 1:54.73 — third-fastest in the world. Ryan Murphy was second in 1:55.99. Ryan Lochte, the two-time defending champion, settled for third in 1:56.47 after leading through the first 150 meters.
"That was probably the stupidest way to swim a 200 back," said Lochte, who is coming off major knee surgery. "I felt good the first 100. After that it kind of hit me, it's going to get real ugly. I never swim it like that. I went for it, and I paid the price."
Clary trains with Lochte in Charlotte, N.C. Like Lochte, Clary has endured his share of upheaval this year after switching training bases.
"To be able to come home like that is big for my confidence," Clary said about the last 50 meters. "It hurt like crazy and to be able to grind through, that's encouraging."
Franklin rallied on the last lap to win the 100 free Wednesday, but the 19-year-old college sophomore couldn't chase down the 17-year-old Ledecky in the 200 free, and lost by a body length. Olympian Elizabeth Beisel slipped on the starting block and ended up sixth.
"She was way behind, and that's not Beisel," Franklin said. "My heart went out to her."
Both Ledecky and Franklin had already made the U.S. team for Pan Pacs in Australia this month. Smith and fourth-place finisher Shannon Vreeland also earned spots.
Franklin boogied down behind the starting blocks to a Backstreet Boys song during introductions. Ledecky was next to her but tuned it out. Ledecky didn't given an inch in the pool, but during a post-race interview, she wouldn't challenge Franklin's moves during a suggested dance-off.
"Missy is unstoppable there," Ledecky said, laughing.
Ledecky and Franklin have raced against each other just a handful of times in their burgeoning rivalry. There's no smack talk between these two.
"No way," Ledecky said. "That's not what we're about."
It's a mutual admiration society between the top two American female swimmers.
"Missy is such a great person and great to be around," Ledecky said. "She's an extremely positive person. I watch her all the time. She's amazing."
Before hurrying off to prepare for her second final of the night, Franklin was equally complimentary.
"Watching Katie in the 1,500 and 800 is a treat for everyone but to actually race her in the 200 is awesome," she said. "She just makes me better, and I'm so thankful for that."
Franklin returned in the 200 back and led the last 150 meters to win easily in 2:08.38. Kathleen Baker was second in 2:10.42.
Pulling off the double gave Franklin a boost of confidence.
"Just to be able to do something like this and having the mental strength to tackle a day with four 200s," she said. "It's all about trying to find mental energy."
In the men's 200 free, Matt McLean held off fellow Olympian Conor Dwyer to win after Lochte didn't swim the final. Lochte was the defending champion and qualified third-fastest in the morning, but he instead chose to focus on the 200 back.
"I probably should have swum that (200 free) the way the race went," Lochte said after his loss. "I'm going to swim the 200 free at Pan Pacs."
McLean won in 1:46.93, and Dwyer hit the wall in 1:47.35. Reed Malone, a 19-year-old who swims at Southern California, and Michael Weiss finished third and fourth to grab spots for Pan Pacs in Gold Coast, Australia.
"Conor and I just lay it down every day," said McLean, who trains with Dwyer at North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "I knew he was going to be there."
Olympians Micah Lawrence and Breeja Larson finished 1-2 in the 200 breaststroke. Lawrence rallied over the final 50 meters to win in 2:23.05, sixth-quickest in the world. Larson, the defending champion, couldn't catch her and touched in 2:24.16.
In the men's 200 breast, Kevin Cordes earned a trip Down Under with a narrow victory. He set meet and U.S. Open records in the morning prelims with a time of 2:07.86 and came back to win his second straight national title in 2:09.48 after leading the entire race. Nic Fink rallied for second in 2:09.62.