Tokyo Flashback: Katie Ledecky Joins Elite Company With Third Straight Title in 800 Freestyle (Updated)

Jul 31, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) after winning the women's 800m 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: Katie Ledecky Joins Elite Company With Third Straight Title in 800 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.

A beautiful stroke and incredible endurance. Those are physical traits possessed by Katie Ledecky.

Desire. Guts. Determination. Pride. Those are mental characteristics featured by the American star.

As her Olympic Games program wrapped up in Tokyo, Ledecky turned to the balance of those physical and mental attributes to write her latest history. Packaging a wire-to-wire triumph, Ledecky collected the gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle with a time of 8:12.57, more than a second up on silver medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia. Titmus checked in at 8:13.83, with the bronze medal going to Italy’s Simona Quadarella (8:18.35). American 15-year-old Katie Grimes was just off the podium in fourth, thanks to a time of 8:19.38.

The gold medal was Ledecky’s third straight in the event, and enabled her to join an exclusive club in the sport. She is just the fourth athlete in the 100-plus-year history of Olympic swimming to three-peat in an event. She was preceded by Australian legend Dawn Fraser in the 100 freestyle (1956-1964), Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi in the 200 backstroke (1988-1996) and Michael Phelps in the 100 butterfly (2004-2012) and 200 individual medley (2004-2016).

Several others have applied for club entrance, only to have their application denied. Count freestyle greats Alexander Popov and Pieter van den Hoogenband in that category. The same can be said for Janet Evans and Kirsty Coventry on the women’s side. Simply, it is a huge ask for an athlete to maintain peak form and dominance over three Olympiads, along with turning back the newest contenders.

“I think I saw a statistic two years ago that said no one’s ever three-peated in that event, and that’s been in the back of my mind,” Ledecky said. “It’s both in a good way and in a sometimes that thought gets to you a little bit. You’re like, ‘Huh, I wonder if there’s a reason why no one has ever three-peated.’ It’s tough. It’s tough to win one gold and to do it three times in a row in that event is really amazing. That’s a really fast field, and I knew I had to bring it. I‘m really happy. I just really wanted to end on a good note. I knew it would linger with me if I ended on a bad note, so I tried to use that as motivation to end on as good a note as possible.”

Each of Ledecky’s victories has been unique. In 2012, she was the upstart challenging the reigning champion, Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington. Within a few laps, a changing-of-the-guard situation emerged in London, with the American claiming the first title of her international career. Four years later, Ledecky raced the clock, such was her supremacy. Ultimately, she set a world record of 8:04.79, with silver medalist Jazz Carlin nearly 12 seconds back.

The third time around was the most difficult for Ledecky, as Titmus mounted a push and never let Ledecky get away, which has long been her trademark. Earlier in the week, Titmus and Ledecky engaged in an epic duel in the 400 freestyle, with the Australian prevailing behind a charge down the final lap. Titmus, too, captured gold in the 200 freestyle, an event in which Ledecky placed fifth as the defending champion.

Over 16 laps, Ledecky was in more of a comfort zone than her rival, but Titmus was certainly riding a wave of momentum and capable of posing a problem – again. Titmus sat in second place for the duration of the race, and though she didn’t extend her lead by sizable margins, Ledecky gradually opened up her edge. She was up .41 at the 100-meter mark, followed by leads of .95 at the 200 and 1.01 at the 300. At the midpoint of the race, Ledecky had a lead of 1.22.

Heading into the back half, Ledecky had control, but Titmus was still a factor. With the American’s advantage at 1.32 at the 500, Ledecky pressed the gas a bit, a show of her experience and decision to build a little more cushion going into the last two laps. At the 600-meter turn, Ledecky was ahead by 1.72 seconds, the margin jumping to 2.43 at the 700. Titmus out-split Ledecky by more than a second on the final 100, a finish that rendered Ledecky’s late push all the more important.

“It was a lot of fun to race, and I just trusted myself,” Ledecky said. “I trusted that I could pull it out and swim it whatever way I needed to. I could see (Titmus) the whole way and tried to keep tabs on her and tried to just inch my way out a little bit each 50. I knew she was going to be lurking there the whole time and I knew I needed to have a little gap because if we were neck and neck the last hundred, I know she has that finish. I just tried to swim a smart race, swim it like I know how to and I know that I’m able to swim the 800 a few different ways so I just trusted my training and fought till the end.”

It hasn’t been an easy week in Tokyo for Ledecky, whose past excellence led to the belief that she should again overwhelm the opposition. Athletics don’t work that way, though, and the greatness of Ledecky has grown her sport, sparking Titmus to believe she was capable of producing times in the Ledecky stratosphere. By showing what was possible to up-and-comers, Ledecky also generated her greatest challenges.

To her credit, the 24-year-old has been nothing short of sterling – in and out of the pool. In the water, Ledecky has won gold in the 800 freestyle and 1500 freestyle, along with silver medals in the 400 free and 800 freestyle relay. Out of the water, Ledecky has exhibited tremendous class and perspective. When she won silver in the 400 freestyle, she recognized her effort was superb, indeed the No. 2 time of her career. She also lauded Titmus for her performance and climb to the top.

How dominant has Ledecky been in the 800 freestyle? Well, she now owns the 23-fastest performances in history. Her latest Olympic title is the 16th-fastest effort of her career, with Titmus now 24th on the all-time list. The Aussie has certainly pushed Ledecky, and her presence is appreciated.

“It’s awesome,” Ledecky said of her rivalry with Titmus. “We’re really friendly and it’s amazing what she’s accomplished this week as well. I’m really thrilled to have that kind of competition as something that fuels me, and I know it fuels her as well. So I hope that I can keep up and stay competitive moving forward.”


Women’s 800 Freestyle

World Record: Katie Ledecky, United States, 8:04.79 (2016)
Olympic Record: Katie Ledecky, United States, 8:04.79 (2016)

Final Results

1. Katie Ledecky (United States) 8:12.57
2. Ariarne Titmus (Australia) 8:13.83
3. Simona Quadarella (Italy) 8:18.35
4. Katie Grimes (United States) 8:19.38
5. Wang Jianjiahe (China) 8:21.93
6. Kiah Melverton (Australia) 8:22.25
7. Sarah Kohler (Germany) 8:24.56
8. Anastasiia Kirpichnikova (Russia) 8:26.30


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2 years ago

Nice tip of the cap to the greatest female swimmer of all time. Hopefully she keeps her greatness into ‘24

1 year ago

Too bad Egerszegi retired at such an early age – wonder what time she could have swum in Sydney at the age of 26.

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