Tokyo Flashback: Fittingly, Katie Ledecky Powers to Gold In Inaugural Women’s 1500 Freestyle; Erica Sullivan Rallies For Silver

us-open-videos-Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) celebrates after winning the women's 1500m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

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Tokyo Flashback: Fittingly, Katie Ledecky Powers to Gold In Inaugural Women’s 1500 Freestyle

One year has passed since the Olympic Games, delayed by a year due to COVID-19, unfolded in Tokyo. To celebrate what went down in the Japanese capital, Swimming World is revisiting the championship finals – each on their one-year anniversary – by once again running the stories that were posted after the medals were decided.

It was the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and the women’s marathon was added to the track and field program for the first time. As Joan Benoit captured the gold medal in sweltering heat, the event’s inclusion marked a major moment for women’s athletics. Finally, the gender was given equal billing with the men.

It took 37 years for swimming to catch up.

The Games in Tokyo mark the first time women have contested the 1500-meter freestyle on the Olympic stage, their previous longest event the 800 freestyle. Although the decision to add the event should have been made long ago, it’s better late than never – as the cliché goes. More, the woman who earned the inaugural gold was perfect for the honor.

Leading a gold-silver sweep for the United States, Katie Ledecky covered her 30 laps in 15:37.34 to etch her name in the record book. The greatest distance swimmer of all-time, Ledecky led wire-to-wire and posted the 12th-fastest mark in history. The fastest 11? Well, they all belong to the 24-year-old.  The gold medal arrived a little more than an hour after Ledecky finished fifth in the final of the 200 freestyle, an event in which she was the defending champion.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) and Erica Sullivan (USA) celebrate after placing first and second in the women's 1500m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher

While Ledecky won gold, a back-half flourish from American Erica Sullivan yielded the silver medal to the 21-year-old, who touched the wall in 15:41.41. That effort was a five-second improvement over her personal best from the prelims. Between the Olympic Trials last month in Omaha and the Games in Tokyo, Sullivan chopped 10 seconds from her personal best. She was followed as the bronze medalist by Germany’s Sarah Kohler (15:42.91).

Since emerging as an Olympic champion in the 800 freestyle at the 2012 Games in London, Ledecky has been the face of distance swimming. Initially chasing Janet Evans for the distinction of greatest ever, Ledecky has assumed that identity. Consequently, it was fitting that Ledecky was crowned the first female champion in the metric mile.

In typical Ledecky fashion, she bolted to the front of the field off the start and was never challenged. No, this latest performance was not vintage Ledecky and didn’t come close to her world record of 15:20.48. But Ledecky was in command the whole way, building a second-plus lead by the 200 and moving that margin to two-plus seconds by the 400. Most impressive was the way Ledecky stood out mentally, grinding through a brutal schedule and operating with a target on her suit and constantly in the public spotlight.

“We’re (Olympians) at the highest level and the most eyes on us of anyone in the world,” Ledecky said. “Everyone around the world is watching. The cameras follow you around and I have experienced that on days like today. Every move you make is watched and judged, and as much as we say we ignore it, I think we try to keep a positive mindset and move forward.”

Ledecky has spoiled the sport over the past nine years, to the point where nothing short of victory – an unfair weight – is expected. What is overlooked is that Ledecky, much like Michael Phelps, has raised the bar and forced the competition to elevate their performances. That development can be seen in the way Australia’s Ariarne Titmus has risen to Olympic champion in the 200 freestyle and 400 freestyle, defeating Ledecky in both events.

To Ledecky’s credit, she has demonstrated maturity and guts in Tokyo, taking her results in stride. When she won the silver medal behind Titmus in the 400 freestyle, she accurately assessed the effort for what it was – a strong showing and the second-best time of her career. It just happened that an Australian was a little faster. Meanwhile, she was undeterred by her fifth-place outing in the 200 freestyle. In about an hour, she put that race in the past and shifted her focus on winning the inaugural 1500 freestyle for her gender.

Job done.

“After that tough 200 free, I was warming down and went blank for a little bit,” Ledecky said. “I tried to find some positive things to get me moving forward. The easiest thing for me is to think of my grandmothers. We lost my two grandfathers. I really love them all and it makes me happy to think about them. They are four of the toughest people I know and if I thought about them during the race, I knew I would have the power I needed to get through the race.”

Adopting a race strategy that was the antithesis of Ledecky, Sullivan spectacularly rallied herself to the silver medal. The University of Texas commit, who has dealt with the death of her father and depression, sat in sixth place at the 400-meter mark and was just fifth at the 800, nearly four seconds out of second place. But Sullivan picked up the pace during the back half and cut her deficit to second-place Kohler to one second by the 1200.  She moved into the No. 2 spot at the 1350-meter point and never looked back.

Sullivan beamed after her performance, sharing an embrace with Ledecky in the pool, and another on the deck. The distance star’s mother is a Japanese citizen and Sullivan speaks the language fluently. Obviously, excelling in Tokyo meant a great deal. And the manner in which Sullivan medaled stood out.

“I’ve just had far too many races where I’ve gone out too recklessly and I’ve really felt tight in the last 500, which is so unlike me because even in the training pool, I don’t go out fast. I finish strong.,” Sullivan said. “Before the race, Coach Ron (Aitken), made it clear to me: ‘Hey, stay in control, stay relaxed, and trust your training.’ I said that to myself and I held on to hope the whole way.”

Undoubtedly, it was a key moment of growth for the sport – even if it was excessively delayed. And it’s likely that a young girl watching Ledecky and Sullivan will want to follow in their paths.

“As a father of four daughters, it’s frustrating that it took this long,” said three-time Olympic gold medalist and NBC broadcaster Rowdy Gaines during the U.S. Olympic Trials. “It’s unbelievable. Someone thought women were not strong enough, and 50 years ago, I guess you could understand it, not that I agree with it. It’s a relief (for the athletes). I just feel bad for the generation that didn’t get a chance. At least they’re doing it now.”


Women’s 1500 Freestyle

World Record: Katie Ledecky, United States, 15:20.48 (2018)
Olympic Record: Katie Ledecky, United States, 15:35.35 (2021)

Final Results

1. Katie Ledecky (United States) 15:37.34
2. Erica Sullivan (United States) 15:41.41
3. Sarah Kohler (Germany) 15:42.91
4. Wang Jianjiahe (China) 15:46.37
5. Simona Quadarella (Italy) 15:53.97
6. Kiah Melverton (Australia) 16:00.36
7. Anastasiia Kirpichnikova (Russia) 16:00.38
8. Maddy Gough (Australia) 16:05.81