RIO DE JANEIRO — Katie Ledecky had just one Olympic race left, a race to make history. She would swim it essentially alone.
At the Aquatics Stadium on Friday night—an evening when Michael Phelps would swim the last individual event of his career and the U.S.’s Maya DiRado and Anthony Ervin would pull off two of the biggest surprises of the Games—Ledecky dived into the pool for the final of the 800-meter freestyle as an overwhelming favorite. Never mind that Ledecky had won the 400 in Rio by nearly five seconds; the 800 is her strongest event. She entered Friday’s race as the defending Olympic champion. She had swum the 12 fastest times ever.
By the time she surfaced from her dive Ledecky was already in the lead. Within 50 meters she was on pace to break the world record of 8:06.68 that she had set in January. By 75 meters she was more than a body length ahead of her closest pursuer, Jazz Carlin of Great Britain. Soon the gap was two body lengths, then three, then four, then five.
“She’s a phenom, that’s all I can say,” U.S. teammate and 12-time medalist Ryan Lochte had said of Ledecky earlier in the day. “She’s getting so much faster that she’s starting to beat my times in distance events, which is crazy. Anytime she gets in that water she’s going to do something amazing.”
Indeed. With metronomic consistency Ledecky clicked off the laps. Gradually she moved further and further under world-record pace. As she entered the final lap she was half a pool length ahead of the field. When the scoreboard showed that she was nearly two seconds under record pace, the crowd exploded.
Ledecky touched the wall in 8:04.79, destroying her old mark. Runner-up Carlin reached the finish more than 11 seconds later, closely followed by Boglarka Kapas of Hungary. Ledecky now has the 13 fastest 800-free times ever.
She had not only repeated as Olympic 800 champion and won her fifth medal in Rio (four of them gold) but also become just the second swimmer ever to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles at a Games. The other was the U.S.’s Debbie Meyer, who did so in 1968. During the Olympics Meyer has been following Ledecky’s quest and rooting for her, exchanging text messages from California with Ledecky’s mother, Mary Gen, who is part of a family contingent cheering Katie on in Rio.
There are parallels between the 19-year-old Ledecky and America’s two most storied women’s distance freestyle swimmers, Meyer and Janet Evans, the latter of whom swept the 400 and 800 in 1988 and 1992. Ledecky is more physically imposing than either—at 6’1” she would tower over the 5’7” Meyer and the 5’5” Evans—but like both she rose to prominence as a teenager (Ledecky was 15 when she won gold in 2012, Meyer barely 16 when she swept the freestyles in ‘68 and Evans 17 at Seoul in ’88). Meyer and Ledecky both grew up in Maryland. At Games’ end Ledecky will head off to her freshman year at Stanford, Evans’s alma mater.
USA Swimming can feel confident on one point crucial to its Olympic future: Ledecky will follow something closer to the career path of Evans, who swam in three Games, than of Meyer, who retired at age 18 after her lone record-setting Olympics. Ledecky will set her goals for the 2020 Tokyo Games sometime after she settles in at Stanford.
The weight of her extraordinary week finally came down on her after her final Rio Olympic event. “This is the first time I think I’ve ever seen her in tears after a race, when we were back in the massage area,” Phelps said. “I think it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen true emotion really come out. That was something that was really cool for me to see.”
Phelps won't be swimming in Tokyo. "Nope. Nope. Nope. Done," he said late on Friday night when asked if he might return for 2020.
For the record, his final swim in an Olympic individual event lasted 51.14 seconds. It ended with Phelps looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a number other than 1 next to his name for only the fifth time in the 18 individual finals he has swum at five Games.
Phelps, winner of the last three Olympic 100 butterfly golds, had finished in a three-way tie for second place in that event behind 21-year-old University of Texas swimmer Joseph Schooling of Singapore, the top qualifier, who had reached the wall in 50.39, an Olympic record. Given that a night earlier Phelps had said, “My body is in pain, my legs are hurting,” after winning the 200 individual medley, his runner-up finish was not a huge shock. Phelps glided over the lane lines to congratulate Schooling. Other swimmers in the race, including Phelps’s old rival Chad le Clos of South Africa, who defeated Phelps for the 200-butterfly gold in London, came over to Phelps to congratulate him. For everything. The result didn’t matter.
DiRado’s 200-meter-backstroke victory over three-time Rio gold medalist Katinka Hosszu, Hungary’s seemingly unstoppable Iron Lady, came as far more of a shock. DiRado, a Stanford grad who’ll be going to work for a consulting company after the Olympics, was a revelation at the U.S. trials last month, sweeping both individual medleys and the 200 back (ahead of world-record holder Missy Franklin) to make her first Olympic team at age 23.
In Rio the late-blooming DiRado kept swimming so well that coaches chose her ahead of several top freestyle specialists to swim in the final of the 4x200-free relay, in which the U.S. won gold. Entering Friday’s 200 back, she had won three medals—the relay gold, a silver behind Hosszu in the 400 individual medley and a bronze, also behind winner Hosszu, in the 200 IM.
Through the first 150 meters of the 200 back, Hosszu seemed to be cruising toward her fourth individual gold. But down the stretch she tied up. With Ladecky watching on a video monitor in a room under the stands while waiting for her own race ("I was yelling at the screen," said Ladecky, who drew inspiration from DiRado's race and was still talking about it later) DiRado kept charging. She touched the wall in 2:05.99, just ahead of Hosszu in 2:06.05. DiRado had her first individual medal and her fourth overall. She looked at the scoreboard with mouth agape, as shocked as anyone. But in a moment she was beaming.
The night’s surprises weren’t over. In the men’s 50 freestyle, the oldest U.S. male individual-event swimmer since 1904, Anthony Ervin—who won his first Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000 in a dead heat with teammate Gary Hall Jr.—outtouched France’s Florent Manaudou by one-hundredth of a second, 20.40 to 20.41, to win.
Ervin has been through one of the most extraordinary journeys of any U.S. Olympians. His story, of descent into drug use and a reckless lifestyle after his Sydney success, is literally enough to fill a book—his new autobiography, Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian. Ervin sold his 2000 gold medal on eBay in 2004 to raise money ($17,000) to give to tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia, and somehow lost his relay silver from Sydney sometime between 2003 and 2011, when he was retired from swimming.
But his win on Friday provided a worthy replacement gold, and an especially meaningful one. Sitting next to Manaudou and the U.S. bronze medalist, his friend and fellow Cal grad Nathan Adrian, Ervin spoke afterward of how much he has enjoyed his return to the sport. Other American swimmers said they had benefitted from Ervin's experiences and insight.
As Rio’s swimming competition headed toward its final day, it was natural to start looking ahead to Tokyo in 2020 and wondering if Ervin could end up on the podium there too, at age 39. Or if DiRado, a new star on Team USA, might decide to put that consulting career on hold. Or if Ledecky can possibly be more dominant than she was in Rio. Swimming can be fickle: Four years ago Missy Franklin was a star who won four golds and five total medals at age 17; in Rio she didn’t reach the final in any individual event.
There is at least a small risk attached to Ledecky’s switch from living at home and training with her longtime coach, Bruce Gemmell, to entering college and training under a different coach, Stanford’s Greg Meehan. But Meehan is respected in the sport and is on the U.S. staff in Rio—his swimmers here include DiRado and 100-free co-champion Simone Manuel—and Ledecky seems excited about heading to Palo Alto and beginning to pursue her Tokyo 2020 vision.
“She’s going to keep doing it and she’s going to keep breaking records,” said teammate Lochte. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”