OMAHA, Neb. — The thunder from down under is real, and you know Katie Ledecky can hear it.
For Americans who have not been paying close attention to the swimming world, here is your early warning signal: superstar Ledecky will be in for a pair of serious battles in the Tokyo Olympics. In fact, it’s perfectly fair to stamp her as the underdog in both the 200- and 400-meter freestyles—events she won five years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
The prime competitor who has arisen is 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus, who has been setting that country’s Olympic Trials ablaze this week. First Titmus threatened Ledecky’s world record in the 400, coming within half a second of the mark set while winning gold at the Brazil Olympics in 2016. Then she peeled off a 200 free time that came within .11 seconds of the oldest world record in women’s swimming, set in 2009 by Frederica Pellegrini in the “super-suit” era—when competitors wore buoyant suits that since have been banned.
At the end of the latter swim, Titmus wheeled around to look at her time and dropped at F-bomb when she saw her narrow miss. After the former swim, Titmus made clear that Ledecky will be challenged in the 400. "Well, she's not going to have it all her own way,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I can't control what she does. If I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it's going to be a tough race.”
Ledecky said Saturday she had only recently become aware that Australia’s Trials were concurrent with the United States’. “I'm not going to be checking results every couple hours or anything,” she said. “I mean, I'm sure we'll hear about certain things because I'm sure we'll be asked about certain things, but I think my focus is on Omaha.”
Ledecky had a chance to issue her response to Titmus’s time in the pool Monday, making her first appearance at U.S. Olympic Trials in the 400. She easily won the prelims in a time that was less than half a second slower than she recorded in prelims five years earlier, with nearly identical splits. But the night final was not a replica of her powerful 2016 Trials performance.
Ledecky won, of course. Fairly easily, of course. But she’s set the bar at an unfair level for her own self to aim for. And so her time of 4:01.27, was not the display that has become customary on the big stage—this was more than two seconds slower than what she put on the board in ’16. She had two 50-meter splits that strayed into the 31-second realm, whereas she had none high five years earlier.
A 4:01 won’t send any tremor of doubt across the globe to Australia. Titmus’s trials time this week was nearly five seconds faster. “I thought I’d go a little faster than that, So I was a little surprised,” Ledecky said. “I’ll take it for now.”
That was plenty good enough for now, and reason to spread a big smile on the 24-year-old’s face for having made a third Olympic team. But it won’t be good enough to win gold in late July in Tokyo.
While it might be a shock to some to see Ledecky vulnerable in an Olympic event after winning five gold medals in two previous Olympiads, Titmus has done it before on the international stage. She upset Ledecky in the 400 two years ago at World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. At the time, that result was written off, to a degree, as a result of Ledecky being ill for that meet—she wound up scratching another event and was not near peak form the entire week.
But that also unfairly downplayed Titmus’s performance. In Korea she became the first woman other than Ledecky to break 3:59. Now she’s sliced nearly two full seconds off that performance this week, becoming the only person to come even remotely close to Ledecky’s best time in the event. (Ledecky has 12 of the 14 fastest 400 free times in history; Titmus now has the other two.)
Asked about that event this week, Titmus didn’t shy away from saying she’s coming after Ledecky. "Well, she's not going to have it all her own way,” Titmus told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I can't control what she does. If I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it's going to be a tough race.”
It remains to be seen whether the 800 and 1,500 freestyles will be at all stressful for Ledecky. She still figures to be a massive favorite in those events, pending how she swims those events here.
But the pre-Olympic repartee is escalating on the women’s side—and, to the surprise of no one, it started with American breaststroker Lilly King. Always candid and always confident, King on Friday opined that, if all the American women swim to their potential, they can sweep every individual gold medal—which would be an unprecedented feat.
“I think that would be pretty cool, right?” King said. “But really, just looking at it, I think that is a genuine possibility.”
A couple of days later, Australian Kaylee McKeown broke American Regan Smith’s world record in the 100 backstroke. Whether the bulletin-board material helped or not is unknown, but you can be sure King’s comments didn’t go unnoticed.
"After Kaylee tonight, I think there's the backstroke gone,” Titmus said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “We have chances in a lot of other events. I feel like the Olympics is not going to be all America's way—there are other countries coming through, we'll be in the mix, we have a pretty strong team."
That’s clearly been established. The United States also will take a strong team to Japan—but almost every medal figures to be a fight, even some of Katie Ledecky’s.
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