Race Of the Century — Part II? How Special Showdown Developing On Path to Paris 2024

Ariarne Titmus and Katie Ledecky

Race Of the Century — Part II? Women’s 400 Freestyle the Can’t-Miss Event On Path to Paris

Given that it was only four years into the new millennium, the moniker was a bit of a stretch. Hyperbole, though, has long been a part of the sporting landscape, and not giving the matchup a nickname seemed wrong. So, the sole meeting between three of the sport’s titans at the 2004 Olympic Games was anointed The Race of the Century.

No one blinked.

For those who balked that the in-the-moment assessment was premature, time has proven otherwise. In Athens, the men’s 200-meter freestyle – indeed – emerged as worthy of its title, the event’s headliners delivering a clash for the ages. Ultimately, it was Aussie Ian Thorpe who mined gold, the podium also featuring Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and American Michael Phelps.

ian thorpe

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

How deep was this podium? Combined, the medalists boast 44 career Olympic medals, including 31 gold. All three athletes managed at least one Olympic repeat. Together, they set 49 individual world records – 46 courtesy of Phelps and Thorpe. To match this firepower will not be easy, and some might argue that the suggestion of a sequel — and that’s where this article is headed — is blasphemy.

Yet, here we are. The calendar says the 2024 Olympics in Paris are less than two years away, and with each flip, the focus of the medal challengers will intensify. As far as the women’s 400 freestyle is concerned, the contenders for the podium are limited – a major upset necessary to blow up what could be the Race of the Century – Part II.

To introduce the combatants, we will briefly turn to the approach utilized by Jeopardy.

  • She is the world-record holder in the event and will arrive at the Paris Games as the reigning Olympic champion. Who is Ariarne Titmus?
  • The 2016 Olympic champ in the 400 freestyle and a 10-time Games medalist, she is the greatest distance performer the sport has seen. Who is Katie Ledecky?
  • She finished just off the podium as a 14-year-old at the Tokyo Games, but has since etched herself as a multi-event talent, and as a potentially disruptive force in the 400 freestyle. Who is Summer McIntosh?

The battle for supremacy in the 400 freestyle is nothing new for Titmus and Ledecky, as their rivalry — respectful and appreciative — truly ignited at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo. While a 16-year-old Titmus was the fourth-place finisher in the 400 free at the 2017 World Champs, it was at the next year’s Pan Pacs in which Titmus announced herself as a true contender to the Ledecky throne.

As Ledecky earned gold in 3:58.50, Titmus also dipped below the four-minute barrier, setting an Australian record of 3:59.66. It was clear at that moment that Titmus had accepted the challenge of unseating the greatest distance swimmer in history, much like when Ryan Lochte eagerly accepted the challenge of battling Phelps in the early 2010s in the 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley.

Ariarne Titmus

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

At the next year’s World Championships, Titmus handed Ledecky her first defeat in major international competition, rallying down the last lap to overhaul the American – 3:58.76 to 3:59.97. The triumph came with a caveat, though, as Ledecky was battling a stomach virus that forced her withdrawal from the 200 freestyle and 1500 freestyle. Even Titmus and coach Dean Boxall recognized that Ledecky was not at full strength. Still, it was a major step for the Aussie and generated excitement as the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo beckoned.

Of course, the path to Tokyo was disrupted when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged on a global basis in early 2020, eventually causing a one-year delay to the Olympics. Once the Games rolled around in 2021, in a spectator-free environment, Titmus and Ledecky did not disappoint in producing an epic showdown. As was the case at the 2019 World Champs, Titmus had too much over the closing lap and her 3:56.69 outing was quicker than the 3:57.36 of Ledecky.

“I just thanked her,” Titmus said of Ledecky. “I wouldn’t be here without her. 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.”


Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Lost in the duel between the Aussie and American stars was McIntosh, whose precociousness was on full display in the form of a fourth-place finish. Posting a Canadian-record time of 4:02.42, the 14-year-old touched in fourth place, 1.34 seconds off the podium. It was a special showing by a youthful star who just happened to be overshadowed by a pair of giants.

If there was hope for a full rematch between the trio a year later, the disjointed nature of the 2022 competition calendar declared otherwise. Although Ledecky and McIntosh raced at the World Championships in Budapest, Titmus opted to bypass that meet and focus — as Aussies often do — on the Commonwealth Games. The positive? Like Ledecky in Budapest, Titmus had McIntosh to face in Birmingham.

At the World Champs, Ledecky went 3:58.15 to beat McIntosh and her swim of 3:59.39, which bettered her Canadian standard. A month later, McIntosh was a little faster, as her performance of 3:59.32 was behind only the 3:58.06 of Titmus at the Commonwealth Games. Earlier in the year, Titmus took down Ledecky’s world record in the event with a mark of 3:56.40.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Certainly, an engaging dynamic has emerged in the event. While Titmus has taken the discipline to a new level with her May world record, Ledecky has pressed to return to her peak form of 2016. In the process, she has produced several impressive efforts and shifted her training locale from Stanford to Anthony Nesty at the University of Florida. Then there’s McIntosh, who has trimmed three seconds off her Tokyo time and entered the sub-four realm to become a factor. Recently, McIntosh edged Ledecky in the short-course 400 freestyle during World Cup action, their times ranking No. 2 and No. 3 all-time in the little pool.

Unquestionably, the pieces are in place for a special, three-way battle. But when will that be? Unless there is a change in plans, we won’t soon see an indisputable barometer of the event’s status. All three leading contenders have opted to bypass the World Short Course Championships, and even if they ventured to Melbourne, short-course competition would only provide a snapshot of where things stand. Instead, it looks like we must wait for the Summer of 2023, where the Big Three will presumably meet at the World Championships in Fukuoka. That event may be the last meeting before the 2024 Games in Paris, since the 2024 World Champs are unlikely to attract many of the sport’s elite due to its unfriendly placement on the calendar.

If anyone is capable of producing a podium shakeup, it is Li Bingjie. The bronze medalist in the event in Tokyo, Li recently shattered the world record in the short-course version of the 400 freestyle. But making a run over eight laps in the big pool is a different demand. The Chinese standout owns a personal best of 4:01.08 and – from that perspective – sits well back of her global foes, and their sub-4:00 markers.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It’s always enticing when the sport offers up rivalries, and in the case of the women’s 400 freestyle, a Titmus-Ledecky-McIntosh showdown features all the elements required for something special. And it closely resembles what the Race of the Century presented nearly 20 years ago. If Titmus and Ledecky occupy the veteran and established roles of Thorpe and van den Hoogenband, McIntosh is the upstart in the mold of Phelps.

The Race of the Century — Part II? Just like the original, it might be a premature distinction.

Or not.

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