Tokyo Flashback: In Epic Showdown, Ariarne Titmus Tops Katie Ledecky To Become Aussie Golden Girl

Jul 26, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) reacts after finishing second to Ariarne Titmus (AUS) in the women's 400m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

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Olympics: In Epic Showdown, Ariarne Titmus Dispatches Katie Ledecky To Become Aussie Golden Girl (Updated)

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.

Hype is – and always will be – a major element of the sports world. Rivalries are built up, with the media and fans alike eager to witness a moment in history. Frequently, these much-anticipated showdowns unfold as duds, the actual event unable to live up to lofty and sometimes unrealistic expectations.

Occasionally, though, something special is produced.

On the second day of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the final of the women’s 400-meter freestyle earned legendary-event status, as Australia’s Ariarne Titmus and American Katie Ledecky battled in an epic duel that will go down in Olympic lore. Ultimately, it was Titmus who prevailed, as she ran down Ledecky over the last 100 meters and touched the wall in 3:56.69, the second-fastest time in history. Ledecky, who had the lead for most of the race, clocked in at 3:57.36, the No. 4 all-time performance, but not quite quick enough to retain her Olympic crown.

Earning the bronze medal was China’s Li Bingjie, who went 4:01.08, with Canadian 14-year-old Summer McIntosh finishing fourth and just off the podium in 4:02.42. But this race was about Titmus and Ledecky, and they provided a spectacular show that figures to be replayed for years to come.

“It is the biggest thing you can pull off in your sporting career, so I’m over the moon,” Titmus said. “I’m trying to contain it as much as I can. I have a big program ahead of me, but I can enjoy this afterward.”

An argument can be made that the women’s 400 freestyle was the can’t-wait-to-watch women’s event heading into the Tokyo Games, pushed for that distinction only by the 100 backstroke. Yet, the head-to-head nature of Ledecky vs. Titmus made that clash slightly more enticing, as the sporting world loves its individualized rivalries. More, there was history between the distance aces.

At the 2019 World Championships in South Korea, Titmus dealt Ledecky a rarity – defeat on the international stage. Blasting down the final lap of the 400 freestyle, the Aussie overhauled the American and gave the podium a very different look – Ledecky a step below a foe. It is worth noting, however, that Ledecky was dealing with a severe stomach virus that not only affected her performance in the 400 freestyle, but necessitated her withdrawal from the 1500 freestyle.

Then, during June’s Australian Olympic Trials, Titmus pulled off what was thought to be unthinkable: She challenged Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46 in the 400 free by registering a time of 3:56.90. That territory visited by the 20-year-old was previously domain only known to the American, and not thought to be explored by others anytime soon. Still, Titmus needed to get the job done on the Olympic stage.

In some ways, Titmus has played the role of Ryan Lochte during his rivalry with Michael Phelps. The mere presence of Phelps on the starting blocks shook the confidence of many competitors, but Lochte embraced the challenge and possessed a confidence that he could close the gap and topple his American teammate. And while Phelps overwhelmingly ruled the entirety of the rivalry, Lochte enjoyed a brief period in the early 2010s when he bettered Phelps in the medley events and 200 freestyle.

Titmus has followed a similar path, undaunted by the previously never-seen times generated by Ledecky. Her coach Dean Boxall crafted a plan that would position his charge to contend against the U.S. star, and that blueprint worked splendidly. The tandem believed certain times, no matter how fast and formerly reserved for one person, were within reach and they chased them.

“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.”

The Ledecky-Titmus rivalry also features the angle of disparate styles. The Ledecky camp, which includes her coach Greg Meehan, has adopted a buttoned-up approach. Information pertaining to training and goals is rarely shared, and Ledecky’s comments to the media are vanilla. She does not discuss her competition. It’s an approach that works. On the other side of the spectrum, Titmus and Boxall are vocal, have lauded Ledecky by name and sworn – even after top-flight performances – that much more speed is to come.

Following Titmus’ triumph, Boxall erupted into a wild celebration of arm waving, fist-pumping and screaming. It elicited memories of Laurie Lawrence, the coach of Duncan Armstrong. When Armstrong won the 200 freestyle at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Lawrence celebrated by shaking security barriers and wandering up and down the venue stairs. Both outbursts revealed the care and passion for their athletes and work.

As is her trademark, Ledecky attacked from the start and had the lead at the 100-meter mark. But as opposed to the past, when she would already have clear room over the opposition, Titmus was right with the U.S. star. Ledecky touched at the midway point in 1:57.44, with Titmus at 1:58.10, and the American was still in front at 300 meters, although her margin had been cut to 2:58.11 to 2:58.27. Just a few strokes into the last 100 meters, Titmus was ahead and never looked back.

“Honestly, at the 200, I was a bit worried, but I did not come to the Olympic Games unprepared,” Titmus said. “I had to trust myself and stay as composed as I could. Use the speed that I have. And all that against a woman who has an amazing back end of her race. I’m really proud.”

Titmus’ victory will also end the speculation that she cannot beat a healthy Ledecky, a narrative which emerged in 2019 due to the American’s sickness at the World Champs.

To her credit, Ledecky defended her Olympic title superbly. When the United States Olympic Trials were held in June, Ledecky won easily, but she looked sluggish and not the athlete who might be the best female swimmer in history. But as Tokyo approached, Ledecky obviously positioned herself to excel and have a chance at defending her three freestyle crowns from the Rio Games.

It just turned out that Titmus was a touch sharper.

“I’ve had some tough ones over the years,” Ledecky said. “Certainly a tough race, but I think we delivered. It can’t get much better than that. 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.

“She definitely swam a really smart race. She was really controlled up front and I felt pretty smooth and strong going out, and I looked up at the 300 and it was like, ‘oh, she’s right there.’ I knew it was going to be a battle until the end. I didn’t feel like I died or really fell off. I think she just had that faster last 50 or 75 and got her hand on the wall first.”


Women’s 400 Freestyle
World Record: Katie Ledecky, United States, 3:56.46 (2016)
Olympic Record: Katie Ledecky, United States, 3:56.46 (2016)

Final Results

1. Ariarne Titmus (Australia) 3:56.69
2. Katie Ledecky (United States) 3:57.36
3. Li Bingjie (Great Britain) 4:01.08
4. Summer McIntosh (Canada) 4:02.42
5. Muhan Tang (China) 4:04.10
6. Isabel Gose (Germany) 4:04.98
7. Paige Madden (United States) 4:06.81
8. Erika Fairweather (New Zealand) 4:08.01

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Lisa Dixon-Wells
Lisa Dixon-Wells
2 years ago

Shout out to 14 year old Summer MacIntosh…4th place. ??

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