Ariarne Titmus Capable of Posing a Threat to Katie Ledecky

ariarne titmus
Photo Courtesy: Ian MacNicol

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Ariarne Titmus remembers racing from the competition pool to warm-down to a medal ceremony to drug testing, and along with all that, an emotional high unlike any she had ever experienced. In Budapest, in late July of 2017, she had won the first World Championships medal of her budding career, a bronze with Team Australia on the women’s 4×200 free relay.

That foursome, as Titmus explained, had been “pulled together from a lot of different girls across different events,” with backstroker Madison Wilson, versatile veteran Emma McKeon and IMer Kotuku Ngawati leading into Titmus’ anchor leg.

Then just 16, Titmus had no history of clutch performances at international events—or even participating in those meets. She had not qualified for the Rio Olympics one year earlier. Her breakout meet had come at Australia’s World Championship Trials in March, where she posted huge time drops to win the 400 free (five seconds) and 800 free (14 seconds) and also finished second in the 200 free.

But Australia’s coaches decided that Titmus would be the best candidate to swim the anchor leg, a trust earned four days earlier when in the first international race of her career, Titmus finished second behind all-world distance swimmer Katie Ledecky in a 400 free heat. And then Titmus verified that trust in the final, finishing fourth and just one second away from a medal.

And then on the relay, Titmus dove in fourth, 1.54 seconds behind fourth-place Russia. But with a clutch 1:56.61 anchor split (a second and a half better than her previous lifetime best), Titmus ran down and passed Russian anchor Arina Openysheva to take bronze.

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Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

All that set up what was, to this point, the biggest and only flop of Titmus’ international swimming career. The morning after the relay, Titmus finished a disappointing 14th in the 800 free.

“My 800 was shocking. My coach still gives me grief about that, One thing I had to learn was to be able to control my emotions and the highs and the lows,” Titmus said. “The emotional high wasn’t something I was quite used to. I swam terrible in the heats, but that’s something I’ve learned from.”

Looking back, Titmus realized how much she learned and grew from that initial experience in Budapest, from her successes in the 400 free and 4×200 free relay and from her setback in the 800. She learned from McKeon, six years her senior but her roommate that week, how to handle a heavy program of events and stay grounded, not getting too caught up in any one race.

Most importantly, she realized that she had no reason to be scared. If finishing six seconds behind another swimmer (Ledecky) in the 400 free would be demoralizing for most, Titmus saw the result as informational.

“I was just happy to see, I suppose, Katie and the people that I have to beat race,” Titmus said. “I saw what I have to beat. I went back to training and knew what I had to improve on.”

And with that, a promising talent transformed herself into a world-beater in 2018. Between April and December, Titmus earned three gold medals and a silver at the Commonwealth Games, two individual silvers behind Ledecky at the Pan Pacific Championships and then, three months after her 18th birthday, two individual golds at the Short Course World Championships.

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An unabashed fan of the British royal family, Titmus got a treat this past April at the Commonwealth Games when Prince Charles presented her medal from the 200 free. Titmus called the prince, first-in-line for the British throne, “a bit different than I thought he would be” and “a bit funny.”

In the pool, Titmus was royalty for those six days on the Gold Coast as she raced in front of family and friends that made the hour-long drive from her home in Brisbane. The 200 free, on the meet’s first day, saw Titmus go head-to-head with World Championships silver medalist McKeon and Titmus’ fellow teenager Taylor Ruck.

But the race turned out to be all about the two teens, with Ruck blasting out to an early lead and holding on down the stretch despite a furious finish from Titmus. Ruck ended up winning the race by four hundredths, 1:54.81 to 1:54.85. Looking back, Titmus called the 200 “probably my best race at the Games.”

“I target the 400 mostly in training, but my speed has picked up a lot to improve that event,” Titmus said. “I think it just kind of translated into the 200. I think that swim, even though I won a silver medal, was probably my best race at the Games.”

After adding golds in the 800 free and on the 4×200 free relay, Titmus cruised to a win in the 400 free on the meet’s final day, her time of 4:00.93 ranking her sixth all-time in the event. Afterwards, Titmus’ coach, Dean Boxall, told her that “it was a great swim under the circumstances,” but he added, “I wonder what you could have done if you were completely fresh.”

The implication was clear: Titmus and Boxall were targeting the 4:00-barrier, one that only Ledecky and Federica Pellegrini had ever surpassed. Ledecky, at that point, was the only woman to ever swim that fast without the aid of now-banned polyurethane bodysuits.

“I knew I had a really good shot at Pan Pacs to try and do it, especially racing the Americans I would obviously have Katie to try and push me,” Titmus said. “In that race, being as close as I was to her, I remember pushing off for the fifth lap and I saw her feet. That just kind of gave me some adrenaline. I just pushed on.”

Going into Pan Pacs in Tokyo, Ledecky was undefeated in the 400 free for six years running, and none of her major finals had been competitive. This time, though she could never shake the young Aussie. Compared to their lop-sided matchup one year earlier in Budapest, Titmus felt far more sure of her own abilities and that she belonged in the race. Ledecky would win gold in 3:58.50, but Titmus was not far back in 3:59.66.

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Photo Courtesy: Swimming Australia/Delly Carr

Titmus’ final stop on her 2018 international medal-winning tour came in Gwangju, China, where she took advantage of Ledecky’s absence to take gold in both the 200 and 400 free, the later of which came in world-record time. The takeaway from Down Under: That Titmus has the capabilities to issue a challenge to Ledecky.

Titmus and Ledecky have met just twice, at the 2017 World Championships and 2018 Pan Pacs, but Titmus has been following the American’s exploits for years—and ironically, she credits Ledecky’s otherworldly times as reason behind her own remarkable achievements.

“A lot of people probably think, ‘This is terrible. I’m pretty much racing for second,’” Titmus said. “But for me, I feel I definitely wouldn’t be swimming as fast as I am right now if it wasn’t for her. If she hadn’t pushed the boundaries and swam a 3:56, I don’t think I would have broken 4:00 yet. If she was only swimming 3:58, I don’t know whether I would be as fast as I am because the standard isn’t as high.”

Echoing the sentiment that plenty of swimming experts have asserted in recent years, Titmus called Ledecky “the greatest female swimmer of all time.” She marvels at Ledecky but does not fear her. And she boasts an uncanny ability to concentrate.

“For some reason, before a race, I can kind of have this extreme focus and know exactly what I have to do when I go into a race,” Titmus said. “That’s something that Dean has always told me is my little extra edge that I have. I have this great ability to focus and mentally be in tune with myself.”

That’s why Titmus was never intimidated when facing high-pressure moments or world-renowned swimmers. She possesses the right formula to become what swimming has missed for six years: a 400 freestyler capable of challenging the great Ledecky.

For more on Ariarne Titmus, check out “Ready to Make their Move” in the January issue of Swimming World Magazine.

5 comments

  1. Halim Yussuf

    Competition is good, creates more excitement for the fans.

  2. Brett Davies

    This will ensure that Ledecky swims even faster.