Why Katie Ledecky, a fiercely competitive GOAT, was actually satisfied with her first Olympic loss

TOKYO — Katie Ledecky knew this was going to sound strange. Or “silly,” as she put it. She was sitting in front of a microphone after her first individual Olympic loss. And she knew that many people who’d watched her cede an Olympic crown to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus would have expected something on the spectrum of disappointment and heartbreak.

But Katie Ledecky?

“It's very satisfying to swim a time like that,” she said.

She knew you’d be confused. But if only you could have been inside her brain these past few months as the Olympics approached and doubts swirled. Many originated on the outside. Had Ledecky slowed? Could she ever touch her Rio times? Some made their way in. “Self-doubt,” Ledecky confirmed. She’s experienced it. “I've had to overcome a little bit of that.”

And so, after Olympic trials in June, when Ledecky was disappointed with a few of her swims, she did everything in her power “to eliminate all that from my head.” To forge self-belief, then validate it in the pool. And when she boarded a plane from Hawaii to Tokyo earlier this month, she felt it. Confidence. Faith.

But as she hunkered down for a vitally important training block, one that would define the narrative of her third Olympic cycle, Titmus wasn’t on her mind. Or at least not at the fore of it. Her confidence wasn’t comparative. Her faith was in her training, in herself.

That’s the thing about swimming. “Our sport is so time-based,” Ledecky explained. “I'm driven by a clock.”

How did Katie Ledecky, one of the biggest competitors and most successful athletes you'll meet, feel about losing the first individual race of her Olympics career? Surprinsgly OK. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
How did Katie Ledecky, one of the fiercest competitors and most successful athletes around, feel about losing the first individual race of her Olympic career? Surprinsgly OK. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

A clock was all she saw as she put her head down last month to prove that she still had Rio-esque times in her. In the 400-meter freestyle, she hadn’t cracked 3 minutes and 59 seconds in almost three years. She knew she’d have to, and then some, to beat Titmus. But Titmus was an intangible target. Times were tangible.

Times were what Ledecky chased when she flung herself into a pool here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center on Monday. And her time? Superb. A 3:57.36, her best in five years and second-best ever, a time that would have won every other international women’s 400m free in the history of the sport.

In Tokyo, it wasn’t quite fast enough. Titmus’ greatness, inspired by Ledecky’s, won the day. Ledecky was nonetheless proud. “Proud of how I swam,” she said. “Proud of how I got to that point.” At peace with the work it required.

“It's not an easy journey,” she said. “It's never an easy journey to the podium. So it's not something I take for granted, being up there.”

And she was, once again, confident, perhaps even more so than when she arrived in Tokyo. She does, clearly, still have greatness and gold medals in her, and four more events to contest, beginning with a 200m and 1500m prelim Monday night. She’ll meet Titmus again in three of the four finals, and could, realistically, though not likely, end up with just one gold medal. Monday forced us to reckon with that possibility.

But Ledecky?

“I hope that sets the tone for the rest of my meet,” she said, not of her second-place finish, but of her time and her race against a clock

She had, within an hour or two of her race, come to terms with this novel concept of Olympic defeat. She was stoic and introspective, even positive, in interviews.

“I just felt a lot of joy and happiness and love coming into this race,” she said. She carried that with her through the pool, and then back to the Olympic Village, and then back to the pool Monday night.

“And yeah,” she said, “that's the biggest win of all.”

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