Katie Ledecky, the greatest female freestyler ever, had not lost a single 400-meter race since 2013.
But at the 2019 World Championships in South Korea, Australian Ariarne Titmus chased down Ledecky in the final lap of the 400-meter freestyle to outtouch her by 1.21 seconds. Titmus had spent the past two Olympics watching Ledecky on TV, wondering if she could touch her achievements. She credits Ledecky with providing her with focus and drive in her own training.
Ledecky checked into a hospital after that race; she had competed while dealing with a stomach virus. This set the stakes high for a rematch. Was Ledecky actually vulnerable, or was Titmus able to capitalize because of a momentary weakness?
But the pandemic, and the postponement of these Olympics, kept the two from encountering one another head-to-head again until Sunday's (Monday in Japan) 400-meter final.
And it was Titmus who won again, this time on the biggest international stage, taking Olympic gold in 3:56.69. Ledecky won silver in 3:57.36. Li Bingjie of China, the Asian record holder in the event, took the bronze in 4:01.08.
It suggests a changing of the guard is coming in swimming. Ledecky, now 24, retains her world record in the event but will not stand atop an Olympic podium for the 400-meter for the first time since 2012. Titmus, 20, stands poised to ascend to the kind of stardom Ledecky enjoys.
Ledecky has insisted at every turn that she welcomes the competition Titmus provides. Despite all the rivalry talk, the two women exhibit all the hallmarks of great sportsmanship, if not friendship. Ledecky said after the race that they are close, and that the presence of each pushes the other to do better. Titmus echoed those sentiments.
But great rivalries aren't always based on trash talk. They're born of competitors going head to head, finishing within fractions of seconds of one another with both equally capable of winning any given race. This could be a rivalry for the ages.
The 400-meter is the crossroads where the swimming strengths of Ledecky and Titmus meet. Ledecky, who holds world records in the 400-meter, 800-meter, and the 1500-meter, seems to prefer the longer distances and has earned out more definitive wins there. Titmus stands out in the 400-meter and the 200-meter, with times just shy of the world record in both. Both women excel at the freestyle.
The race was close between Titmus and Ledecky from the start, though at the halfway point, it appeared Ledecky had gained on Titmus by about half a second. By the eighth and final lap, though, Titmus was ahead by just a tenth of a second, and increased her lead slightly through to the wall. In the homestretch, the two women were breathing into each other, Ledecky, who breathes mostly to her right, looking from the fourth lane into Titmus' face in the third, edging past her own.
In a way, the approach each woman took to training during the pandemic suggested they each saw this outcome on the horizon.
Titmus, who is from Tasmania, the island south of mainland Australia, trains in Brisbane, and spent the pandemic there. She worried about losing not only speed and strength but also her competitive fire (her nickname is "The Terminator"), and possibly missing the chance to compete with Ledecky. She went nearly a year without competing at all. It's no wonder that, as she returned to the blocks, she spoke out confidently about her prowess and her prospects against Ledecky—almost as though she could will it into being.
Ledecky spent several months of the pandemic training in a two-lane, 25-yard backyard pool in Northern California with her teammate, Simone Manuel. She returned to Stanford to earn her undergraduate degree in psychology, with a minor in political science—something she had assumed her Olympic training would delay. Her swimming did not endure the typical peaks and valleys of a competitive season; she focused instead on maintenance. Her approach paid off with Olympic berths in every event in which she competed at the American Olympic trials in June. Without having to prove herself over and over, Ledecky was able to prove her greatness in time to make a third Olympic team.
In a race Ledecky is accustomed to winning by body lengths, she lost to Titmus by 0.67 seconds. Titmus improved upon her own finish at last month's Australian Olympic trials, where she won her Olympic spot with a 3:56.90. "[Ledecky]'s not going to have it all her own way," Titmus stated boldly after that swim.
It's true, the pool is not a Burger King. And Titmus was able to pull off a whopper of a win.