For more than half of the 400-meter freestyle swimming final at the Olympic Games, Katie Ledecky led the race — comfortably. Or as comfortably as she could, racing against one of her fastest rivals: Australia’s Ariarne Titmus.
With Titmus steadily trailing her, Ledecky hugged the right side of her lane to make sure she wasn’t catching a draft from Titmus following her. There was about half a body’s length difference between the two. Then, with 100 meters to go, Titmus made a hip thrust, propelling ahead. In the final 50 meters of the race the greatest swimmer of all time and the newcomer went head to head, every stroke landing clean.
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Ledecky, 24, pressed her palm against the wall 0.67 seconds behind Titmus. At 3:57:36, Ledecky swam her second-best race ever and the third-fastest time in history. It was the first time in three years she swam a race under 3:58. In the only other time Ledecky had a better race, she set a world record and won a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
On any other day and against any other opponent, Ledecky would have won gold.
But, this was not any other day and Titmus was not any other opponent.
Ledecky looked at Titmus and smiled brightly. It was the best 1-2 finish in the history of the event.
“I fought tooth and nail,” Ledecky said during the NBC interview after the race. “I can’t be disappointed with that.”
That race marked the first time that somebody had beaten Ledecky in an individual Olympic event.
Let that sink in.
And that was only the beginning of Ledecky’s journey at the Tokyo Olympics.
The same day in which Ledecky swam the third-fastest 400-meter freestyle of all time, she came back and swam the fastest 200-meter preliminary of the day and the eighth-fastest mile of all time (15:35:35 in her 1,500-meter freestyle heat — an Olympic record). On July 26, Ledecky won her heat of the semifinal comfortably at 1:55:34, but Titmus was just a little bit faster in her heat. Ledecky will be seeded third in the final behind Titmus and Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong (1:55:16).
On July 27, she will attempt to do something no swimmer — man or woman — has had to do at the Olympics before — swim the 200- and the 1,500-meter freestyle final on the same day, and in the same session.
And she is favored to medal in both events, including the gold in the 1,500-meter. She will also have another shot at beating Titmus in the 200-meter event.
To really show Ledecky’s range, here’s a mind-bending comparison: When Michael Phelps won his eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he swam a total of 3,300 meters. By the time Ledecky is done at this year’s Games, she will have swum 6,000 meters (or 3.7 miles), nearly twice as many as Phelps.
Swimming the 200-meter freestyle requires a completely different skill set than swimming a 1,500-meter freestyle, Phelps said while co-hosting NBC Primetime on Sunday.
“In the 200, you have to fast stretch your muscles, there is no relaxing. But, in the mile, you can swim a more relaxed race,” Phelps said.
Phelps has called Ledecky the “greatest female swimmer of all time.” But Ledecky’s legacy goes far beyond her medals and records. Upcoming swimmers, including Titmus, have looked up to her as a leader and a swimmer.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Titmus said after her win. “She’s set this standard for middle-distance freestyle — if I didn’t have someone like her to chase I definitely wouldn’t be swimming the way I am.”
Ledecky graciously said after the race that tough competitions are “good for the sport.” But, what she didn’t mention is this: She plays a vital role in tough competitors emerging in the world.
Team USA’s Phoebe Bacon called Ledecky an inspiration at the U.S. Olympic swim trials in Omaha, Nebraska. Bacon literally grew up watching and competing against Ledecky — they both attended Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland — and Bacon’s dream of an Olympic medal solidified after she grew up around Ledecky’s legacy.
Katie Grimes, who at 15 finished second in the 1,500-meter freestyle during the swim trials, said, “Maybe I can be just like Katie [Ledecky] one day,” after her trials performance.
Sunday was the first time Ledecky won a silver in her long and dominant Olympic career. In 2012, Phelps did not win a medal in the 400-meter individual medley and won silver in the 200-meter butterfly. He still went on to become the most storied Olympian of all time.
By the time Ledecky is done with the 200-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle events in Tokyo, she very well could become one of the greatest Olympians in history, with eight golds (assuming she wins gold in the other three freestyle events) and two silver medals in three Olympic games.
“You get this opportunity once every four years — and in this case five years,” Ledecky said in an NBC interview before the 400-meter final. “It doesn’t get old, competing in the Olympics.”