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TOKYO — Katie Ledecky came to a stop in the media mixed zone Sunday night and, for a quick moment, craned her neck for a view of the television monitor located behind a gaggle of reporters. There were no results on the screen, but you can’t blame her for being a bit curious about what had just transpired in the pool behind her.
The greatest female freestyler in history had completed her first swim of these Tokyo Olympics, rolling through the 400-meter freestyle in 4:00.45. The next heat was the one she had her eye on, led by Australian Ariarne Titmus. Her time: 4:01.66.
“Nice,” Ledecky said when informed of Titmus’s swim. “It’s going to be a great race tomorrow.”
It is, indeed. Perhaps the race of these Tokyo Games, serving as the the first of four riveting acts.
Since bursting onto the international swimming scene in 2012, Ledecky literally has been unrivaled. In the past two Olympic Games, most of her races featured vast blue expanses of pool water between the American and her closest pursuers—if that word even applies.
That has changed. We are about to see a compelling four-race showdown between Ledecky and her new rival, Titmus. Act I is Monday morning here, Sunday night in the United States, and it is the sweet spot where their strengths overlap most.
That’s the 400-meter freestyle, one of three events in which Ledecky holds the world record, but also one in which Titmus has posted by far the fastest time in the world this year. The other two individual events are the 200 and 800—the shorter distance is advantage Titmus, the longer distance is advantage Ledecky. They could also clash in the anchor leg of the 800 freestyle relay, an event where Australia has the upper hand on paper.
Titmus may simply be too fast to catch at 200 meters, where the Australian’s best time (performed in June) is more than half a second faster than Ledecky’s (performed in 2016). Ledecky figures to have the greater stamina in the 800, where her entry time is five seconds ahead of Titmus and four ahead of two other competitors. The 400 is where the greatest tension lies.
Ledecky owns the world record and seven of the top eight times in history—but Titmus upset her in that event at World Championships in South Korea in 2019 (amid complicating circumstances for Ledecky, which we’ll get to). And Titmus threw down a time last month that is within half a second of Ledecky’s world mark and considerably faster than anything the American has posted this year.
But Dean Boxall, the demonstrative coach of Titmus, is eager to try and claim the underdog role for his 20-year-old protege—hunting easier than being hunted, and all that. “Other than the 200 meters, Arnie is still behind her,” he told the Australian newspaper The Age. “She goes there as the Olympic champion, her third Games; she’s regarded as the greatest female swimmer of them all.”
Ledecky’s 4:00 here was her best prelim swim of 2021, and also faster than her finals performance at Olympic Trials last month. It also was more than a second faster than her prelim performance two years ago, when Titmus shocked the world at World Championships.
The final of that 400 was the only time Ledecky has been beaten internationally at a distance longer than 200 meters since before 2012. It happened to come in a meet where Ledecky fell ill and wound up scratching a couple of events—but Titmus posted a legitimately fast time to blow Ledecky away in the final 50 meters.
“Ariarne Titmus had a great race and I wouldn’t take anything away from that,” Ledecky said. “She earned that.”
For two years since then, the swimming world has wondered: was that a Buster Douglas punch that pierced an aura of invincibility? Or a temporary setback that Ledecky is prepared to correct this time around?
The answer is coming shortly.
“We just have to make sure that Katie understands there is a girl who is swimming fast and she will be right there. She knows that there is a kid from Australia who, if she performs well, will give her one hell of a race,” Boxall said. “Hopefully, they can meet each other on the last lap and see what happens. There’s a lot of memories waiting to be created.”
When Titmus rolled through the mixed zone Sunday night, she said she’s “relieved” that the showdown “is finally here. I know I’ve done the work.”
Ledecky feels the same way, after five weeks of quality tinkering since Olympic Trials. She felt the momentum from the United States’ fast start to this competition Sunday morning, watching a couple of races before forcing herself to get on the bus back to the Olympic Village. Four of her five American suite mates there already have earned medals, so it’s time for Ledecky to add to the haul.
She’s never won anything but gold in Olympic individual events. But she’s also never had a worthy rival until now. It’s game on in Tokyo for Katie Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus, in the first of four matchups that could be the best these Olympics have to offer.
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