Katie Ledecky Feels the Pain of Her First Olympic Loss

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TOKYO — The moment Katie Ledecky knew she would eventually come, though maybe not that soon, was three quarters of the way in the 400m freestyle Monday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Center.

Ledecky, the world record holder for the 300m and the last gold medalist, led Australian Ariarne Titmus, who was faster than Ledecky this distance all year. Ledecky had rushed out, trying to get Titmus into a hole and perhaps make him doubt himself.

That’s what a swimmer does when he knows he might not have as many things as his opponent next to him, and it almost works. Titmus said he saw Ledecky half a second and almost a corpse in front of him halfway through the race and was starting to get worried.

But then, 100 meters after the turn, they were nearly even and, to no one’s surprise, Titmus took the lead to win in 3:56.69 against Ledecky’s 3:57.36. Still, it was still shocking to see Ledecky falling short at the distance he was expected to have during his short career.

At the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, Ledecky won the 400 free by about five seconds. Still, there was Titmus now churning over him.

“Surreal,” said Titmus, still taking a deep breath a few moments after the victory. “It’s the greatest thing you can do in your sports career.”

It was one of the most anticipated showdowns of the Tokyo Games. It looked like Titmus was going to lose the race based on his recent superior times, but Ledecky had never lost an individual race at the Olympics, a run that stretched to a surprise win at age 15 in London nine years ago.

This undefeated Olympic record, combined with Ledecky’s dominance in races longer than 200 meters, had earned her version of swimming Serena Williams, an athlete that almost everyone in the sport stops to watch when she hits the water.

As the final laps began, Australian swimmer Kyle Chalmers took a break from warming up for the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay while watching on a TV at the swimming arena.

Chalmers felt a surge of energy as Titmus pushed Ledecky away. “It’s really inspiring to watch,” said Chalmers. “It gives goosebumps to your eyebrows.”

To be fair to Ledecky, most champions lose even in races they dominate. Michael Phelps won the silver medal in the 200 butterflies at the London Olympics, a race he should never have lost (he won again four years later).

Entering the Tokyo Games, Titmus was the only swimmer to beat Ledecky in a distance race in a major event. But that was at the 2019 world championships, where Ledecky was battling a virus. Still, Titmus was the US champion at Australia’s Olympic trials and had put a target in his opponent’s back, saying his American teammates wouldn’t have it all in Tokyo.

The words were prophetic on Monday. The American men announced that they won the 4x100m freestyle relay even though Phelps didn’t carry them. The Americans routed wire to wire and set up the third fastest relay time in history. Caeleb Dressel gave the USA the early lead and Blake Pieroni caught him midway. Then it was Bowen Becker’s turn. Taking home the Americans, Zach gave Apple a half-body-length tip.

“When these three guys take me out, it’s easy,” said Apple, with the gold medal draped around his neck.

However, the USA failed to reach the podium in the other two finals of the day. Canadian Margaret MacNeil finished first in the 100m butterfly, while 18-year-old Virginian Torri Huske finished fourth. In the 100m breaststroke, Britain’s Adam Peaty defended his title while Michael Andrew finished fourth.

But his focus was on Ledecky and Titmus.

Ledecky has long been considered virtually untouchable at any distance more than 200 meters. But swimming is the ultimate sport of standing alone. Registrations are falling with surprising frequency, and Titmus has been after Ledecky for the past three years.

“I wouldn’t be here without him,” Titmus said of Ledecky when he was finished. “It set an incredible standard.”

Ledecky found himself doing something he rarely does – explain how he failed in the race despite swimming his best time since the 2016 Olympics, when he set the world record.

“You’re trying to find every little bit of it trying to move forward,” he said. “He took a bit of a lead going into the last 50. I could see it and knew it wasn’t fading. I felt like I was still there. +

“I had a quick final 50,” he added. “He’s had the last 50 really fast.”

Peaty said he was confident Ledecky would keep repeating the race in his head and wondered if there was anything else he could do.

But there was little time for that. Ledecky also competes in freestyle races in the 200, 800, and 1,500 meters at these Games, and has qualified for the 1,500 and 200 scheduled for Monday evening.

After being idle for a while, at the office like several others, he planned to return to the pool in the late afternoon in the second half of the day.

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