So outlandish is it that a swimmer could battle for medals in both a sprint and a slog that the scheduling in the 200m and 1500m freestyle did Katie Ledecky no favours. There was little more than an hour between the two finals.
But few athletes have such deep stocks of stamina and determination, and given how the 200m worked out, perhaps the brevity of the gap even helped her. That way there was little time to ruminate on one of the most dissatisfying swims of her career.
Walking to the warm-down pool after finishing fifth (fifth!) in the 200m, Ledecky bumped into her coach, Greg Meehan, as he descended from the stands. “We chatted a little bit,” the 24-year-old said. Get mad if you think the frustration can fuel you, he suggested. Or put it out of your mind: forget it happened and treat the 1500 like it’s your only race of the morning.
Ledecky chose the more zen approach and flooded her mind with happy family memories, especially of her grandparents. “I just really love them all and it makes me really happy to think about them,” she said.
Confidence and calmness renewed as the warm-down segued into a warm-up, a surprising start to Ledecky’s session ended as expected, with a commanding victory over a distance where she is routinely so far in front as to make viewers grateful for the invention of widescreen television.
When she touched the wall in Tokyo four seconds ahead of the runner-up, her fellow American, Erica Sullivan, Ledecky pointed with her index finger towards her star-spangled supporters in the stands. She smashed a hand into the water in what looked like a multi-layered celebration: personal joy, delight for her teammate and relief at releasing the tension and securing gold at the third attempt in Tokyo.
At this point in the narrative, the journalistic cliche handbook calls for the assertion that she made amends for her earlier disappointment. But really, what does an athlete this gifted and successful, operating at this level, have to atone for?
“I kind of laugh when I see things like ‘settles for silver’,” Ledecky said afterwards, referring to her second place in the 400m freestyle two days earlier behind Ariarne Titmus.
This was a fifth individual Olympic gold (sixth overall) for the 24-year-old, the world record holder in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle. That medal tally equals the great Hungarian, Krisztina Egerszegi; only Michael Phelps (13) has won more solo events in the pool.
Still, there was no need to add the victory ceremony for the 200m freestyle to her cluttered timetable. Billed, of course, as Ledecky versus Titmus Part II, the Australian was faster than Ledecky at every 50m interval and in the latter stages the gap only grew.
Titmus is raising the standard. Her 200m victory in 1:53.50 was an Olympic record, 0.22 seconds faster than Ledecky’s winning time in Rio. And it was not only Titmus who swam faster. So did Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong, the Canadian, Penny Oleksiak, and Yang Junxuan of China.
It was the first time in 36 international finals appearances that Ledecky has not won a medal. Titmus admitted to “a little bit” of surprise that Ledecky was not breathing down her neck. “I always think that Katie’s going to be there. She was definitely there for the first part of the race,” she said, “then I guess she wasn’t at the end.”
The sense of a wider power shift only increased with the next race, the men’s 200m butterfly final, in which the American, Gunnar Bentz, finished seventh. The now-retired Phelps had won three of the past four gold medals.
Team USA closed out the session with a fourth-place finish in the 4x200m as Great Britain took the gold. The US had won the past four Olympic men’s 4x200m freestyle finals and (the 1980 boycott aside) had never finished outside the top three in an event that dates back to 1908. Still, the new star of the men’s team, Caeleb Dressel, cruised into the final of the 100m freestyle, winning his semi-final.
Ledecky will also compete individually in the 800m. She is a three-time world champion in the 1,500m, which was added to the slate for female athletes at these Olympics a mere 117 years after its introduction for men.
Her winning time here of 15:37.34 was two seconds down on the Olympic record she set in the heats and nearly 17 seconds off her world record mark from 2018. But she is so superior over 30 laps that she could probably win on seven minutes of rest, let alone 70.
“The times might not be my best times but I’m still really happy to have a gold record round my neck right now,” Ledecky said. “My past performances, that puts pressure on myself. I am always striving to be my best and to be better than I’ve ever been. It’s not easy when your times are world records in some events.
“I literally approach each race with the belief in myself that I can swim the best time and that’s pretty darn tough,” she added. “It’s also a really hard attitude to maintain for nine years and so I’ve gained perspective over the years.”
Sat in the press conference room a few minutes earlier, Sullivan, a first-time Olympian who won silver in her only event in Tokyo, sounded giddy with happiness and thrilled at the attention.
The 20-year-old endured the trauma of her father dying from cancer in 2017 and was bullied at school in Nevada because of her Asian heritage: her mother is Japanese. Her grandfather, who died in 2018, was an architect who worked on some of the Tokyo Games venues, she told Swimming World.
“I spoke English with a thick Asian accent until I was around 5,” she said on Wednesday. “My mom isn’t even an American citizen.” She then gave a shout-out to the US women’s football team and invited a couple of the players to get in touch with what must have been a wide grin behind her face mask. “I’m multicultural, I’m queer, that’s what America is,” she said.