TOKYO — The greatest female swimmer ever swam the second-fastest 400-meter freestyle of her entire life on Monday, and for as long as Katie Ledecky can remember, that was good enough. Her greatness was untouchable. Her best had been the best. Near-flawless swims were, for almost an entire decade, golden.
But here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, when Ledecky hit the wall after 300 excellent meters, feeling “smooth and strong,” smoother and stronger than she had in five years, she looked to her left, and saw something, thought something, felt something she hadn’t felt in ages.
“Oh, she’s right there.”
“She” is Ariarne Titmus, “The Terminator,” the 20-year-old Australian who chased down Ledecky and dethroned her on the second day of swimming finals in Tokyo. Titmus finished in 3:56.69, the second-fastest time ever, and 0.67 seconds ahead of Ledecky on the day.
But not because Ledecky had labored through the water. “I didn't feel like I died, or really fell off,” she said.
She just got beat, for the first time at the Olympics, by a woman four years her junior, a woman who had been inspired by Ledecky’s own greatness. When the two climbed out of the pool, Titmus approached Ledecky and thanked her.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Titmus said afterward. “She's set this amazing standard for distance freestyle for girls. And if I didn't have someone like her to chase, I definitely wouldn't be swimming the way I am.”
So it goes that Ledecky, in a way, created her conqueror.
The American had seemingly slowed in the five years since she set a 400-meter world record in Rio. And she admitted Monday that the external doubts had punctured her bubble. "I've had to overcome a little bit of that, self-doubt," she said. But she worked to eliminated it. She trained maniacally. The five weeks between trials and Tokyo engendered self-belief. And she validated all of it Monday. She obliterated the narrative. She swam faster than she had in five years.
“I mean, it can't get much better than that,” she said afterward. “I can't be too disappointed with that.”
Instead, she was left to ponder that unfamiliar feeling, of being great but not great enough.
Ledecky knew the challenge had been coming. Titmus arrived on the scene in 2018 and 2019, and beat an ill Ledecky at the 2019 world championships by over a second. And for two years thereafter, swimming fans around the globe looked forward to their Olympic race. Titmus upped the anticipation when she shattered her own personal best with a 3:56.90 at Aussie Olympic trials.
And on Monday, at long last, they delivered. Titmus delivered. Ledecky delivered. Both embraced the moment and gave the Games a race for the ages. They matched each other stroke for stroke over the first 100 meters. Ledecky pushed out to a half-second lead at the 150. Titmus made her move over the final 150. She closed to within 0.16 seconds at that 300-meter mark, almost startling Ledecky with her presence.
Over the final length, Ledecky emptied her body, her soul, her mind. “I felt like I fought,” Ledecky said. “Fought tooth and nail."
And when Katie Ledecky has fought tooth and nail, at full health, with technique and race strategy meshing into brilliance, Katie Ledecky, for years, hasn't lost.
"I felt like I swam a great race," she said, and when's the last time she swam a great race and simply got beat by something greater?
"Um," she said, and then paused to think. Five seconds passed. "I — I, uh, I mean, I guess some relays."
"It's a rarity," she admitted.
It's what so many of her opponents have felt over the years. Now, at least for 48 hours, before the two duel again in the 200-meter free on Wednesday morning in Tokyo, swimming has new world order.
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