Katie Ledecky is the most accomplished swimmer of her generation, but even she was left to recognize the greatness of what happened. Ariarne Titmus had come from behind on the last leg to deal Ledecky her first ever individual defeat on the Olympic stage.
The 400-meter freestyle competition had started according to plan. Ledecky pulled ahead and did what she always seems to do. She performed like the fastest swimmer on the planet, a title she very much established herself to be over the last decade.
That’s when the Titmus show began.
The 20-year-old Australian started to bridge the gap between herself and the reigning champion, who had set a new world record during her winning run at the Rio Olympics five years ago. Chipping away at Ledecky’s lead stroke after stroke, Titmus reached the final turn 0.22 seconds ahead of her rival.
There was no coming back for Ledecky, not with the Australian swimming the way she was.
Australia's Ariarne Titmus wins the Olympic gold medal in the women's 400m free.@KatieLedecky gets the silver, earning her first Olympic medal of these #TokyoOlympics.— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 26, 2021
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“I mean, it can’t get much better than that,” Ledecky said in the aftermath of her silver-winning run. “I can’t be too disappointed with that.”
Ledecky would later say that she “fought tooth and nail” over the final 50 meters of the race. But all her effort was for naught against an outstanding Titmus.
How good was the Australian? She swam the second fastest time ever, finishing the race at 3:56.69 and a full 0.67 seconds ahead of Ledecky. She may not have started strong, but she finished in gold-medal fashion.
The same can also be said of her coach, Dean Boxall, who went viral after the race for his rather intense celebration:
Titmus and the Australian staff can now celebrate her first ever medal at the Olympic games — one that shines in the brightest of colors. It also is one that would not have been possible without Ledecky, as Titmus acknowledged after the race.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” she said. “She’s set this amazing standard for distance freestyle for girls. And if I didn’t have someone like her to chase, I definitely wouldn’t be swimming the way I am.”
Titmus and Ledecky will meet again soon; they will square off a second time in the 200-meter freestyle competition on Wednesday. If that race goes like the 400-meter competition it will be another epic affair, even though Team USA will certainly hope for a different outcome this time around.