RIO DE JANEIRO — On a night of records and relay thrills, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky gave fans in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium a chance to watch history’s greatest swimmer and the sport’s reigning queen win gold medals in the span of an hour—in very different fashion.
Ledecky destroyed her world record in the women’s 400-meter freestyle, an event in which she already owned nine of the 10 fastest times ever, to earn her second medal in as many nights. Just 50 minutes later, in his first competition of the Rio Games, five-time Olympian Phelps swam a race-changing second leg that helped boost the U.S. 400-meter relay team to gold.
The relay shaped up as a tight battle among pre-Games favorite and defending Olympic champion France, the U.S. and Australia. American coaches slotted Phelps for the second leg (the same as at Athens in 2004 and London in 2012; he swam leadoff in this event only in Beijing in 2008) and put their fastest swimmer, defending 100-meter champion Nathan Adrian, as the anchor.
The 400-free relay has always been a challenging component of Phelps’s Olympic program and this figured to be no different. He had won a bronze, a silver and a gold in the event in three past Games, always contributing strong legs to teams that struggled to reach the top of the podium. It was in a 400-free relay that Jason Lezak famously saved Phelps’s eight-gold-medal quest in Beijing by chasing down French world-record holder Alain Bernard in the final 50 meters in what is generally considered the greatest relay leg in history.
This time, Phelps broke the race open. Hitting the water in second place behind France after an opening 100 by U.S. Olympic rookie Caeleb Dressel, he turned in a superb 47.12-second leg that opened more than a one-second lead on the field and ended up being the fourth-fastest split of the race. The fastest belonged to Adrian, who pulled away with a blistering 46.97 closing leg. The gold was the 19th of Phelps’s career and his 23rd career medal.
By contrast, Ledecky’s 400 free performance was a solo show. She was clear of the field in the first 75 meters and the only question was whether she could break her world record of 3:58.37, which she had challenged in the afternoon heats by swimming 3:58.71, an Olympic record and the second-fastest time in history. Virtually from the start she was on record pace, the crowd looking at the scoreboard expectantly to see her split times each time she flip-turned. The arena erupted on her final lap, and Ledecky touched the wall in 3:56.46, almost two seconds faster than her previous record. Jazz Carlin of Britain arrived nearly five seconds later to take the silver, followed by Leah Smith of the U.S. Ledecky became an even heavier favorite in her next event, the 200 freestyle, on Tuesday night.
Her closest challenger in that race is expected to be Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, who opened the evening with a dominating win in the 100 butterfly. It was a swim of redemption: In the 100-fly final in London, Sjostrom, a medal favorite, finished fourth and lost her world record to winner Dana Vollmer of the U.S. Sjostrom reclaimed the world mark last year (lowering it twice, to 55.64) and on Sunday she crushed the field in another record time, 55.48, finishing nearly a second ahead of Canada’s Penny Oleksiak (56.46). Vollmer, who had hoped to become the first U.S. swimmer to win gold after giving birth (she has a 17-month-old son), took bronze, her sixth career medal and second of the Rio Games.
In the night’s other masterful performance, Adam Peaty delivered Great Britain its first medal of the Games. Having broken his own 100 breaststroke world record in a Saturday heat with a clocking of 57.55, the 21-year-old world champion shattered the mark again in winning the final. Peaty—the only swimmer ever to have broken 58 seconds in the event—finished in a stunning 57.13. A distant second in 58.69 was his former idol, defending Olympic champion Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa, while first-time Olympian Cody Miller of the U.S. took the bronze medal. Back in Staffordshire, England, Peaty’s Twitter-sensation grandmother, Mavis (#OlympicNan), cheered him on with words of encouragement (“I will be roaring for you”) for what she called her “gladiator”
By evening’s end, Phelps had taken the impressive first step toward winning what could be six medals at these Games and Ledecky remained on track for as many as five, a total achieved only twice in history by a female U.S. athlete. Phelps, who goes for two more medals on Tuesday in the 200 butterfly and the 4x200-free relay, broke new ground of a sort with his relay gold: It was his first medal as a 30-something, a father and the elder statesman of a mostly young U.S. team that—with a Games-leading eight swim medals so far and surprisingly strong performances in several of Sunday’s heats and semifinals promising more ahead—seems to be coming together at just the right time.