Katie Ledecky’s Unexpected New Role: Underdog?


TOKYO — For nearly a decade, Katie Ledecky has lived a mostly blessed athletic existence.

At the painfully shy 15-year-old, he upset a defending gold medalist and world record holder to win his first Olympic title at the 2012 London Games. It has had almost no slip since then.

His dominance is so commonplace that his surname has become a verb synonymous with crushing competition. And in his specialties – swimming more than 400 meters – he rarely faces a real opponent, and there is absolutely nothing that looks like a competitor.

Now, there is one.

Australian Ariarne Titmus, a fearless Tasmanian, who speaks big and has the speed to back it up in the pool, is about to ask Ledecky the one question he never had to answer in the previous two Olympic games: the swimmer who puts a target in his back and takes aim at him?

When asked about Titmus at a pre-Olympic press conference from the US this month, 24-year-old Ledecky said, “I’m sure he’ll be quick and I’m sure he thinks the same about me.” The team’s camp in Hawaii.

How fast is Titmus? Most recently, when he counts, he has been slightly faster than Ledecky in both the 200 and 400 meters in the races that Ledecky swept four years ago.

At Australia’s Olympic trials last month, 20-year-old Titmus missed by just half a second to break Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46 in the 400. Also at the US trials in June, Ledecky swam the distance in 4:01.27.

In the 200, Titmus came in 0.11 seconds off the record set in 2009, when swimmers wore friction-reducing stylish suits, which is now banned. Ledecky swam more than two seconds behind the world record in the 200 freestyle 1:55.11 at the US trials.

Out of his time, Titmus’ comments after the trials quickly spread throughout the swimming world.

“He’s not going to do things his own way,” Titmus said of Ledecky after the 400 race.

Of course, Australians have succumbed to unreasonable enthusiasm before.

They won 20 swimming medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, but only managed 10, despite a lot of hype about their prospects in both 2012 and 2016. The Americans won 31 swimming medals at the 2012 London, and topped it with 33 four years later.

To narrow the gap, Australia has timed its trials to coincide with that of the US in mid-June, so its top swimmers maintain momentum between selection and Olympic competition.

Titmus defeated Ledecky in the 400m at the 2019 world swimming championships. It was the first time Ledecky had lost a distance race. in a big meeting. He fell ill during the competition and did not race in the 200 meters. Titmus is now two years older, stronger and much faster; but for many, Ledecky still has the upper hand.

“I wouldn’t want to be the underdog favorite of someone like Katie,” said senior American coach Dave Marsh, who works with the Israeli team in Tokyo. “She’s a beautiful person and one of the nicest young ladies I’ve ever met, but very tough in the water.”

There are many stories about Ledecky pushing male swimmers to their limits in training and setting a standard for women that is nearly impossible to match. He also remains the strong favorite in the 800 and 1,500 meters, and this may be the closest to an automatic win for any athlete in any sport in Tokyo. This is how far ahead of the competition he is in the longest distance events in the pool.

But as the reigning Olympic champion in both the 200 and 400 meters, no one expects him to leave his titles without a fight.

As a swimmer, Ledecky has all the physical abilities. He’s 6 feet tall and wiry but 160 pounds muscular and has a magical flexibility that allows his legs and torso to generate tremendous strength in addition to his arms.

His “underwater” – dolphin kicks and his undulating body coming out of a turn – is actually faster than the free kick itself, so swimmers can’t use the maneuvers more than 15 meters after pushing the wall. They still gave him a huge advantage.

But Ledecky’s greatest gift may be that he truly enjoys a unique chore workout for the long swim, with all those thousands of meters he spends each week prone and staring at a black line. By contrast, Michael Phelps hasn’t hesitated to talk about his misery during the sometimes seemingly never-ending training sessions.

Ledecky even said the USA team is in its happy spot at pre-Olympic camp in Hawaii, often messing with their grueling workouts that take place at Stanford University, which he graduated this year.

“I feel very lucky to love this sport as much as I love it,” he said. “I love to train.”

We’ll see if keeping Titmus away will be enough and how he reacts when he has an opponent down his neck or even in front of him in events he has historically had.

For Ledecky, anything other than the 200m to 1500m gold medal sweep would be seen as unsatisfactory. She fell in love with the brutal 1,500-meter race at the age of 12, making her Olympic debut for women.

Titmus, on the other hand, has little to lose: There’s no shame in losing to the world’s greatest female swimmer. It’s led by Dean Boxall, a fiery South African known for his wavy hair and brash energy on the pool deck.

Boxall feels that Titmus is on par with his American rivals in every way. Aspect told the Sydney Morning Herald last month, “I feel like the Olympics won’t be all America’s way.”


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