For a while, it seemed that all the talk of an upset loss by Katie Ledecky was going to be just that: talk.
After taking the lead at the end of her second 50-meter stretch in the women’s 400-meter freestyle final Sunday night, Ledecky had built a decent advantage, nearly a full body length at one point. But then, it happened.
Australian Ariarne Titmus, who stunned the world with a victory over Ledecky in the 400 free at the 2019 world championships, made her move. Just before the final turn, Titmus passed Ledecky and built up a lead of her own heading toward the wall. Ledecky powered up to keep close, but it was too late. Titmus had pulled off the win on the world’s biggest stage, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. In doing so, she introduced what should become one of the sport’s best rivalries to the world.
“We’re really friendly. She said she couldn’t have done it without me, and I could say the same about her,” Ledecky told NBC’s Michele Tafoya in a postrace interview. “She really pushed me, and I think it’s great for the sport.”
“She set this incredible standard, and all credit to her for the swimmer she is. I’ve just been trying to chase her,” Titmus said of Ledecky to Australia’s Channel 7.
Seeing Ledecky fall short of gold was a strange moment for American swimming fans. She is the most decorated women’s swimmer of all time, winning gold medals in 20 Olympic and world championship events. Since breaking out in the 2012 London Olympics, no one has been able to touch her in distance freestyle events.
And even as Ledecky left the Tokyo Aquatics Center with a silver medal and began preparing for her next races, she could take solace in the fact that it was, by all accounts, an impressive swim worthy of a gold medal. Ledecky’s fastest time in the 400 freestyle is the world record time, 3:56.46, set in her gold medal-winning performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Her 3:57.36 on Sunday was the second-fastest she had ever swum in the event.
But Titmus was just better. She swam a 3:56.69, which is now the second-fastest time in the event’s history, behind only Ledecky’s mark.
“I fought tooth and nail and gave it my all. I can’t be disappointed. That’s an awesome time for me,” Ledecky told NBC.
This race was just the latest in their rivalry.
Titmus, 20, first made herself known to the swimming world in 2018 when she won two individual gold medals (400 and 800 freestyle) at the 2018 Commonwealth Games before later racing that year in the short-course 2018 FINA World Swimming Championships. There, she set the world record in the 400 freestyle at 3:53.92. She swam against Ledecky for the first time in the 400 and 800 freestyle at the 2018 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships. Ledecky won gold in both races while Titmus took silver.
A year later, Titmus drew international acclaim when she defeated Ledecky by more than a second in the 400 at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships (3:58.76 to 3:59.97). Ledecky did not race against Titmus in the 200 freestyle that year; Titmus placed second in the event behind world record-holder Federia Pellegrini of Italy.
On Sunday, Titmus added Olympic gold. And that’s just the start.
Swimming fans who have grown accustomed to watching Ledecky cruise to multiple gold medals every four years will now watch in anticipation to see how many she’ll be able to win. Titmus has demonstrated her prowess in the 400. On Tuesday, she will be the favorite to win the 200 freestyle against Ledecky. But Ledecky should have her revenge in Friday’s 800 freestyle final.
There have been a number of great rivalries between Olympic swimmers, but Americans aren’t used to seeing their side come up short. Entering Sunday, Ledecky had won five individual Olympic gold medals. No swimmer beat Michael Phelps in an Olympic event more than once.
Even before the next Olympics (Ledecky will be 27 and Titmus 23 for the 2024 games in Paris), the two will also clash in the World Aquatics and Pan Pacific championships. Nearly every year, there will be a race featuring the two going head-to-head.
“It’s really exciting now that we have this battle going, it’s really fun to race. That’s the best part about it,” Titmus told Channel 7.
And expect them to trade wins. Titmus has shown that she can rev it up in the faster freestyle events. Ledecky has shown she can outlast opponents in the longer races. But the 400 world record still belongs to Ledecky, and she holds the record in the 800 and 1,500, as well. Ledecky might win a race in the 200. Titmus might win in the 800.
Fans who will read online that Ledecky is racing for another gold medal overseas might stop when they see she’s swimming against Titmus. They might watch to see who will get the better of the other.
Naysayers were claiming after Sunday’s race that Ledecky’s run as the best women’s swimmer is over. They’re wrong. She’s still the greatest distance swimmer in women’s history and she’ll add more gold medals in Tokyo to prove it. She will likely win much more gold in her career. She’s still the best there is in the sport.
But now, when she gets into the pool for the 200 and 400, fans will have a reason to be on the edge of their seats, wondering not just whether she’ll set a record, but also whether her rival will.
Sporting News Australia’s Lachlan McKirdy contributed to this report.