Katie Ledecky glanced up at the scoreboard in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Wednesday morning as she waited for the rest of the field to reach the wall in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle.
She gave a fist pump as she saw her time. Then, she leaned over the lane line to her right to celebrate with teammate Erica Sullivan, who had just finished second in the race. After that, the emotions hit. She leaned on the lines to her left and, in a rare display by the all-time great, cried, knowing that she had at last captured her first Olympic gold medal in what has been a challenging 2021 Tokyo Games.
Earlier in the morning, Ledecky failed to medal for the first time in her major international competitive career when she placed fifth in the 200 freestyle. Ariarne Titmus won the gold, the second time the Australian had finished ahead of Ledecky in these games. Titmus also defeated Ledecky in the 400 freestyle.
Ledecky snapped that short-lived gold-medal drought with the win in the 1,500, and she did it in a way only she could.
“I think people maybe feel bad for that I’m not winning everything and whatever, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world, people that are truly suffering,” Ledecky said, according to ESPN. “I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA.”
These are the first Olympics to include the women’s 1,500 freestyle, but Ledecky is no stranger to the event. She has won three world championships and two Pan Pacific Championships, and she holds the world record with a time of 15:20.48. Including her Olympic-record time of 15:35.35 and her gold-medal-winning time of 15:37.34, Ledecky holds the 13 fastest times in the event.
Perhaps what made her win all the more impressive was the grueling nature of the day and how difficult her 2021 Tokyo Olympics had been to that point.
Ledecky competes in all the distance freestyle events — the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 — and is all but certain to be a part of 4×200 freestyle relay team. That means there is near constant practice.
Monday night in Tokyo, she had to swim in the prelims of the 200 and 1,500, and she posted the top time in both races (1:55.28 in the 200 and 15:35.35 in the 1,500). The 200 prelims came just eight hours after she finished second in the 400 to Titmus, the first time she had earned a medal below gold in the Olympics.
Fast-forward to Wednesday morning in Tokyo. Ledecky swam the 200 freestyle final at 10:44 a.m. local time and fell short of reaching the podium as four other swimmers touched the wall before she did. She had until 11:57 a.m. — the time the swimmers dived in off the block — to prepare for the longest women’s swimming event ever in the Olympics. That’s 1,700 meters of swimming for the second time in three days, or 5,577.428 feet (1.06 miles) worth of swimming.
“After the 200, I knew I had to turn the page very quickly,” Ledecky said, according to ESPN. “In the warm-down pool I was thinking of my family. Kind of each stroke I was thinking of my grandparents.
“They’re the toughest four people I know, and that’s what helped me get through that.”
The men’s swimmers never have to compete in multiple freestyle finals in the same day. In fact, this isn’t the case for most swimmers. FINA, the world governing body for water sports, told Yahoo! Sports that the Olympic swimming schedule designed to ensure that the 1,500 would not be on the same day as the 400 or 800.
“The schedule is designed to avoid ‘natural’ doubles,” a FINA spokesperson told Yahoo. “It is unusual for a swimmer to be a finalist in both the 200-meter freestyle (an event that takes less than two minutes) and the 1,500-meter freestyle (an event that takes more than 15 minutes). Ms. Ledecky is an unusually talented athlete who can compete at the highest level in both events.”
These Olympics haven’t been easy on Ledecky. She has faced the first serious challenger in her international career, and so far, Titmus has gotten the better of her. They will compete in only one more individual event — the 800 freestyle, where Ledecky will be favored to win — and could face off again in the 4×200 relay. But beyond just facing Titmus, Ledecky has also faced the repercussions of her extraordinary abilities: a grueling schedule.
And still, by midday Wednesday in Tokyo she was standing atop the podium with another gold medal in hand as she continued to build on her legacy as the greatest women’s swimmer of all time.