Tokyo Olympics 2020: Katie Ledecky’s down and up day ends with a gold in the pool

Katie Ledecky, of the United States, reacts after winning the women's 1500m freestyle
Katie Ledecky, of the United States, reacts after winning the women’s 1500m freestyle Image Credit: AP

Katie Ledecky had only a little more than an hour to recover from the biggest disappointment of her storied Olympic career, a stunning fifth-place finish in the 200, freestyle.

Few expected her to win that race, even though she was the reigning champion, not with Ariarne Titmus of Australia in the next lane, just as she had been on Monday in the 400 freestyle when she beat Ledecky for the gold. But fifth place is not where Ledecky, who came in targeting five gold medals, ever expected to be.

She stared blankly at the scoreboard after she touched the wall. She winced as she walked across the pool deck. There would be no medal ceremony before the start of her next event, the 1,500m freestyle.

Ever since the Olympic schedule came out years ago, this was the day she had circled, the day she would try to pull off a golden double by winning two vastly different races.

It would be the kind of day Michael Phelps had in 2008, when he won the 200m butterfly and a relay gold in the same session. Now it was going in the wrong direction, shocking her competitors.

“I always thought she was going to be there,” Titmus said, regarding the 200m, which gave her a second gold medal in three days.

Instead, Ledecky headed for the warm-down pool. She conferred with her coach, Greg Meehan. He told her be angry if she wanted to, but at least she had more time to prepare for the metric mile swim.

She said she had always planned to use the adrenalin from her performance in the 200 to power her through the 1,500, the longest race in the pool and a gruelling physical and mental test.

“Things didn’t work out super-well there,” she said.

As she swam back and forth in the warm-up pool, she thought of her family, especially her grandparents, the toughest people she knows. And she tried to get her head around the next task.

Then, just before noon, she hit the water in the 1,500, and roughly a minute or two later order in the swimming universe was restored.

Ledecky, the ultimate distance freak, has loved the 1,500 since she first raced at the distance when she was 12, and has been nearly impossible to beat in it ever since.

Ledecky was a body-length ahead of Jianjiahe Wang of China after 200 metres and five ahead at the 300m mark. Breathing every other stroke, barely kicking, and stretching her lead on each turn, she swam in cruise control for much of the rest of the race.

Erica Sullivan, her American teammate, pushed her ever so slightly at the end, getting to within seven meters of Ledecky. But even Sullivan knew the way this would end.

“I could see her wake,” Sullivan, who won the silver medal, said. “Usually I just see her in the turnarounds.”

When she touched the wall, Ledecky smacked the water and let out a scream.

It was her second medal of the Games, after her silver in the 400m, but her first gold, the kind of medal she expects to take home. She corralled Sullivan, who did not realise she had captured the silver, a huge moment in the Tokyo pool for a woman whose mother is Japanese. Usually steely, Ledecky was close to tears — they would flow in the post-race news conferences — another superstar athlete at these games trying to manage the pressure of outsized expectations.

On Tuesday, that pressure had claimed Naomi Osaka of Japan and Simone Biles. On Wednesday, the Tokyo Games tested Ledecky in a way she had not been tested before, and she had made it through.

“People maybe feel bad for me not winning everything, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world,” she said. “The most pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself.”