In one of the most anticipated showdowns of the Tokyo Games, Ariarne Titmus of Australia defeated Katie Ledecky of the United States in the 400-meter freestyle, beating the reigning champion by two-thirds of a second.
“Surreal,” Titmus said, still breathing heavily several minutes after the triumph. “It’s the biggest thing you can do in your sporting career.”
Ledecky, the world-record holder in the event, came in as something of an underdog. Titmus beat her at the world championships two years ago, when Ledecky was sick. And she’s been faster than Ledecky at the distance this year.
Titmus is the only swimmer to beat Ledecky in a distance race at a major meet and had put a target on her rival’s back, saying at Australia’s Olympic trials that the U.S. champion wouldn’t have things “all her way” in Tokyo.
“I fought her tooth and nail,” Ledecky said, doing what she almost never does: explain a loss. “She swam a smart race.”
Titmus backed up the talk in the pool on Monday morning, overpowering Ledecky down the stretch in one of her signature events.
Ledecky went out fast, building a lead of nearly a full body length through the first half of the race. Then she flipped at the 300-meter mark and realized that Titmus had nearly pulled even. Coming off the last turn, Titmus inched into the lead, and Ledecky had the fight of her Olympic swimming life on her hands. She churned as hard as she could in the final 15 meters, but Titmus had just a little bit more.
Ledecky has long been considered nearly untouchable at any distance of more than 200 meters.
But swimming is the ultimate sport of one-upsmanship: One swimmer sets a seemingly unmatchable standard, only to see a new collection of competitors match it far sooner than anyone anticipated.
That is what has happened with Titmus, a 20-year-old Tasmanian, who has come on like a force of nature in the last three years, testing Ledecky’s fierceness as a competitor as it rarely has been before. On Monday, that fierceness was on full display as Ledecky put up a fight, but Titmus had just enough to outlast her in the final meters.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” Titmus said of Ledecky when it was over. “She set an amazing standard.”
Ledecky is also competing in freestyle races at 200, 800 and 1500 meters at the Games, but Monday is a day at the office unlike anything she has experienced. With preliminary heats in the 1,500 and the 200 meters scheduled for Monday evening, there was little time for sulking about second place.
“I was right there,” she said.