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TOKYO – Nine years into her Olympic career, 300 meters into her first final here, Katie Ledecky looked over and saw a plot twist. She knew it was coming. Anybody paying attention knew it. Australian Ariarne Titmus was always going to make this 400 freestyle a race. The question then, on many levels, was: Now what?
Would Ledecky hang on? She began this race like she begins almost every other: by going out fast and trying to leave the world behind her. Her splits were encouraging, the gap between her and Titmus wider than expected. Ledecky would swim her second-fastest 400 ever; she was just as fast, basically, as she had ever been. And yet …
“I felt pretty smooth and strong going out, and looked up at 300 and was like, 'Oh!'” Ledecky said. “You know: 'She's right there.' I didn't feel like I died or really fell off. I think she just had that faster last 50 or 75 and got her hand to the wall first.”
Titmus caught and then passed Ledecky. Gold for the Australian comet in 3:56.69, silver for the United States legend in 3:57.36. But the question was still there: Now what?
How would Ledecky handle this? She did not get where she is by shrugging off second place. The U.S.-Australia pool rivalry is as intense as it has ever been. Then there were the oddly conflicting expectations for her: Casual swimming fans assume she will win, but at times in the last year, some serious fans questioned whether Ledecky could reach her former heights. Both of those sentiments could be irritating. Ledecky had to summon some post-race grace quickly, and she did it.
“I think we delivered,” she said. “Can't get much better than that.”
Ledecky is too savvy and has been in the spotlight too long to publicly sulk. But those words were not just a concession. They were an acknowledgement: She didn’t want to see Titmus over her shoulder at 300 meters, but it was better for the sport.
And this brings us to that same question for the American public: Now what? Ledecky has been more admired than beloved; she has been almost as dominant as Simone Biles but not nearly as fun to watch. In Rio, she won this race by almost five seconds, which is a lifetime. The gap between Ledecky and silver medalist Jazz Carlin was wider than between silver and seventh place. It was absurd, but once she gets so far ahead that she is basically alone on your television screen, what else is there to say?
In London in 2012, Ledecky was the 15-year-old prodigy. In Rio in 2016, she was a rare athletic breed: a 19-year-old GOAT. Now, in Tokyo, she is the star trying to fend off the (relative) kid. It doesn’t change who she is, but it could change how we see her. Titmus makes Ledecky’s Olympics harder but more interesting. It’s for the best, and even Ledecky sees it.
“Tremendous race, a lot of fun,” Ledecky said. “I can't be too disappointed with that. That was my second-best swim ever. I felt like I fought tooth and nail and that's all you can ask for.”
Later, she said: “It may be silly to some people to say that, but our sport is so time-based, and I’m driven by the clock.”
Ledecky welcomed Titmus, not so much toward the end of the race but on a more spiritual plane: “I know what it takes to get to this level, even to just be a swimmer here. Not many people win. In this case there is one winner and 20, 25 other people in the race.” You can imagine what that means to Titmus, but you don’t have to imagine. Listen.
“I wouldn't be here without her,” Titmus said. “She set this amazing standard for middle-distance freestyle for girls and if I didn't have someone like that to chase I definitely wouldn't be swimming the way I am. I'm really grateful to have her. ... More than anything I've just had fun out there.”
Now what? For Ledecky, the answer is matter-of-fact: Back to the pool. She was scheduled to swim prelims in the 200 and 1500 free Monday night, then return Tuesday morning. She knows all the challenges here and planned her whole week, down to meal and bus schedules, to reduce even the smallest decision-making stress.
She surely did not schedule time to ponder what it would mean to finish second to Titmus. But she understood: “It was a thrill to be a part of. I’m sure it was a thrill to watch.” Perhaps the younger swimmer in her first Olympics said it best: “Being in the battle,” Ariarne Titmus said, “is the best thing.”
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