Katie Ledecky Validates Her Confidence and Her Greatness With Stellar Silver-Medal Swim

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) during the medals ceremony for the women's 400m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Katie Ledecky during the medal ceremony following the women's 400 freestyle final -- Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro -- USA Today Sports

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Katie Ledecky Validates Her Confidence and Her Greatness With Stellar Silver-Medal Swim

The world just watched Katie Ledecky swim an Olympic final and not take home gold for the first time in her illustrious career. The question “What’s wrong with Katie?” has been buzzing around Olympics fans in the United States who watched the women’s 400 freestyle final late Sunday evening. They saw Ledecky go out strong and hold almost a bodylength lead through 250 meters before Ariarne Titmus made her move, reeled Ledecky in, pulled ahead just before the last turn and pulled away to claim Olympic gold.

So what’s wrong with Katie? Nothing. On the contrary, her swimming thus far in Tokyo has been excellent, exactly as promised.

Rewind about six weeks to the U.S. Olympic Trials, when Ledecky was out fast in the 400 free but could not hold that blistering pace. She held the lead, of course, but she touched in a final time of 4:01.27, almost five seconds off her world record of 3:56.46. That came less than two days after Titmus put a real scare into that world record, a mark that had been completely unchallenged in the five years since Ledecky set it at the Rio Olympics.

The implication that night in Omaha was clear: Ledecky would be a significant underdog in the 400 free in her attempt to defend the gold medal she won by almost five seconds in Rio.

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) after the women's 200m freestyle heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky following her 200 freestyle prelims swim at the Tokyo Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro — USA Today Sports

That’s a big deal, no? But Ledecky never seemed too shaken. She admitted she was surprised by the time, but “that back 200, I just wanted to get the race over with and punch my ticket. Yeah, the time is what it is. Moving forward, I feel more relaxed now.” She said. “I think we can get better from here.”

Ledecky’s coach, Greg Meehan, was similarly unconcerned about Titmus. “She and I have not talked about one time from the Aussie Trials. Why? We have a lot of (work) to do,” Meehan said.

The implication was that the duo had full confidence that Ledecky would be much faster in Tokyo – heck, probably faster than she had been at any point during the five years she had trained with Meehan at Stanford – and she would be fully prepared to take on the challenge of her new 20-year-old rival from Australia.

And in the 400 free final, Ledecky delivered exactly as promised. She went out a little slower than she did at Olympic Trials, but after the 100-meter mark, she swam each of her lengths much quicker than in the corresponding swim at Trials. She executed her race strategy, and when Titmus was roaring back to challenge her, Ledecky fought. She dug deep, reaching back for the stores of energy accumulated through years of milage in the pool and grueling, hours-long sets. She refused to go down without giving every last drop of energy.

It was reminiscent of the 200 freestyle final from the Rio Olympics four years ago, when Ledecky faced off against Sarah Sjostrom, who had a gold medal and a world record already under her belt at those Games. Ledecky was ahead of Sjostrom most of that race, but she worked so hard to hold off her Swedish rival down the stretch that she came close to throwing up. In the end, Ledecky won gold in 1:53.73, Sjostrom took silver in 1:54.08, and the world appreciated getting to watch two titans face off with both in peak form.

Ledecky delivered that again in the Tokyo 400 free. Her time was 3:57.36, which admittedly is nine tenths off her best time, but it was the quickest she had swum in five years. Yes, five years. The world record dates back to her teenage years, and now Ledecky is a 24-year-old Stanford graduate. It was the second-fastest swim in her career, six tenths quicker than her previous No. 2 mark (3:57.94 from May 2018). Take away the emotions of racing for Olympic gold for a second. No swimmer could be too upset with that.

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ariarne Titmus (AUS) hugs Katie Ledecky (USA) after the women's 400m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Ariarne Titmus & Katie Ledecky embrace after the 400 freestyle final — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher — USA Today Sports

“It can’t get much better than that,” Ledecky said. “It was tremendous racing, a lot of fun and I can’t be too disappointed with that. That was my second-best swim ever, and I feel like I fought tooth-and-nail, and that’s all you can ask for.”

It just was not quite enough to take gold. Titmus’ final time was 3:56.69, merely 0.21 off Ledecky’s world record, and you have to believe that if Titmus could put up a swim like that in the 400, she could succeed in taking down Federica Pellegrini’s 200 free world record of 1:52.98, a suit-aided mark set way back in 2009.

Zoom out a bit, and you’ll see that Ledecky still has four events left on her program this week. Her work was not over Monday after the 400 free final, and that evening, she qualified first out of prelims in two individual events, the 200 free and 1500 free. She set the inaugural Olympic record in the 1500-meter event, newly-added to the Olympic program for Tokyo. Ledecky swam the 200 free semifinal Tuesday morning and qualified third for the final. Titmus is certainly the favorite for gold in the that event, but Ledecky, after having Tuesday evening off, will probably be slight favorite for silver with a pack of chasers right behind her. She will be the overwhelming favorite in the 1500 free, where her time was first by more than six seconds, and if not for having to swim that final in the same session as the 200 final, we may be on world record watch for that race.

The American women will not be favored in the 800 free relay at an Olympics for the first time ever as Titmus and Madison Wilson lead a deep group of Australians, but the Americans should be able to position themselves to win a silver, although Canada and China will present challenges. And Ledecky will again be a big favorite in the 800 free, where she will not have to approach her world record of 8:04.79 to win gold. Titmus does compete in the 800 free, but that event is probably a bit too long for her to be considered a real threat for gold.

So add that up, and Ledecky could leave the Olympics with five medals, matching her total from five years ago. Combined with her 800 free gold from the 2012 Olympics, that would give her 11 Olympic medals for her career, one behind the record for most all-time by a U.S. female (held jointly by Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres and Natalie Coughlin).

So what’s wrong with Katie Ledecky this week? Nothing. She was correct that she would be better in Tokyo, that she would be ready to be on her game. She may be just short of the insanely high bar she set for herself in Rio, but that’s still an amazing swimmer – and a swimmer still hot in pursuit of more history.

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