RIO DE JANEIRO — Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky were facing their toughest night of the Olympics. Phelps was tackling two finals in the span of just over an hour and trying to reclaim dominance in his signature event. Ledecky was taking on the biggest challenge of her young but spectacular career.
The 200-meter-freestyle showdown between the 19-year-old world champion Ledecky and a trio of top rivals kicked off a night of drama that had the Olympic Aquatics Stadium buzzing. By night’s end Phelps had won two more gold medals, his second and third in Rio, in the 200-meter butterfly and the 4x200-meter-freestyle relay. Hungary’s indomitable Iron Lady, Katinka Hosszu, had earned her third gold in four days, winning the women’s 200 individual medley in an Olympic-record 2:06.58, with the U.S.’s Maya DiRado grabbing a bronze behind her.
In the women’s 200-free final, Italy’s Federica Pellegrini predicted that her world mark of 1:52.98—swum in 2009, during the fast-suit era—would fall. The field included three of the four fastest 200-free swimmers in history. One of them, top qualifier Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, had already won gold in Rio in the 100 butterfly. Another, Ledecky, had romped to a Day Two victory by more than four seconds in a world-record-smashing 400 free.
On the opening lap Australian star Emma McKeon blasted to the front, making the first turn a whopping .7 under record pace, with Ledecky well back in fifth. But by the 100 mark Ledecky was in second place and surging. Soon she was out front and in control. “She just loves getting on those blocks and racing,” U.S. veteran Ryan Lochte had said earlier in the day. “That’s what you’ve got to do at this stage. It’s not about the times, it’s about racing.”
In the final 50, Sjostrom made a charge but Ledecky dug deep and held her off, finishing in 1:53.73, the third-fastest time ever. Sjostrom took the silver in 1:54.08 and McKeon the bronze nearly a second farther back.
With two golds and a silver in Rio, Ledecky now seems a lock to finish with five medals, a total earned by only three other U.S. women’s swimmers at a single Games, Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt in 2012 and Natalie Coughlin in 2004. Ledecky will swim on the U.S.’s favored 4x200-free relay on Wednesday and should easily defend her Olympic title in the 800 free on Friday.
Minutes after Ledecky’s win the 31-year-old Phelps, swimming the fifth Olympic 200-butterfly final of his career, reestablished his preeminence in an event he had ruled for a decade before South Africa’s Chad le Clos chased him down in the final 50 meters at the 2012 London Games and out-touched him to win by .05. This time Phelps took command in the second 50 meters and, with the crowd in full roar, held the lead the rest of the way. He narrowly avoided a repeat of London by reaching the wall just ahead of late-surging Masato Sakai of Japan. Phelps finished in 1:53.36, with Sakai just .04 back.
Phelps had little time to dwell on the victory. The 4x200-free relay was scheduled to start in just over an hour.
Phelps had helped power the U.S. to victory in that event at three straight Games, swimming leadoff in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 and anchoring in London. When the U.S. coaches revealed their lineup for Tuesday’s final, they again had Phelps as the closer. In his anchor role he would follow leadoff swimmer Conor Dwyer—the bronze medalist in the 200 free and a member of the winning relay team in London—Olympic rookie Townley Haas and, in the third slot, the only Team USA swimmer older than Phelps in Lochte, 32, an 11-time medalist. Lochte had swum with Phelps on all three of those previous 4x200 gold-medal units.
Australia jumped to the lead on the first leg, but Dwyer surged to the front after the 150 mark and touched the wall in 1:45.23, giving Haas a tight .11 edge on Japan. Haas, a 19-year-old who swims for the University of Texas, responded brilliantly, as Team USA rookies have all week. He blew the race open. Haas turned in the fastest split of the night, 1:44.14, and was clear of the field by the time Lochte took over. Even after a dawdling 1:46.03 split by his elder teammate, Phelps hit the water with nearly a two-second advantage and added to it with a solid 1:45.26 final leg. The U.S. finished in 7:00.66, followed by Great Britain in 7:03.13 and Japan in 7:03.50. Phelps was overjoyed but exhausted.
Midway through the eight days of swimming in Rio, Phelps has boosted his Olympic-record career total to 25 medals, 21 of them gold. With the 100 fly, 200 IM and 400-medley relay still to come, he should end up with six medals, which would equal his total from London. All six could be gold.
Hosszu might have been chasing Phelps in the record book had she not scratched herself from the 200 butterfly before Tuesday’s afternoon heats, citing fatigue. She was on course for a possible five golds in individual events, which would have matched Phelps’s single-Games record from Beijing. Among women swimmers, only retired Hungarian swimmer Krisztina Egerszegi has won five individual-event golds in an entire career. If Hosszu is able to claim a fourth gold in the 200 back, she will equal the single-Games mark for individual-event golds by a woman swimmer set by Kristin Otto of East Germany in Seoul in 1988.
And if swimming is a sport of numbers, then Aug. 12 should be circled on every Olympic fan’s calendar. That’s this Friday, when Phelps, Ledecky and Hosszu will all be on the finals program again, racing in their last individual events in Rio and perhaps settling the debate over which of them most deserves the title of Swimmer of the Games.