Katie Ledecky’s Excellence Paved Way for Rivals, Including Ariarne Titmus’ Ascension

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The day was going to come. It’s just the way sports works. No matter how long an athlete goes untouched, at some point the reign will end. So it went on Sunday night that Katie Ledecky – on the first evening of finals at the World Championships – saw her dominance over the distance-freestyle events not just dented, but usurped by an upstart from Down Under.

For seven years, since emerging as the Olympic champion in the 800 freestyle at the 2012 Games in London, Ledecky has known no peer in races 400 meters and up. Through a ferocious and attacking approach, Ledecky systematically decimated her competition, leaving those who lined up alongside her to race for silver. Simply, Ledecky created a belief in the world that she was untouchable. And truthfully, she has been.

A look at the all-time ledgers in the 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle events reveal a dominance scarcely seen in the history of the sport. Entering the final of the 400 free at the World Champs, Ledecky boasted the 12-fastest times ever produced. More impressively, the 22-year-old headed into action nearly three seconds clear of what anyone else has ever done, a chasm difficult to comprehend. But on July 21, 2019, Ledecky was finally reeled in, a fearless Australian teenager named Ariarne Titmus bumping Ledecky to the second step of the podium.

Ahead of Ledecky through the first half of the eight-lap race, Titmus ceded the lead to the American from the 250- through 350-meter marks, only to roar back and blow past Ledecky down the final lap. Touching the wall in 3:58.76, Titmus benefited from a closing split of 29.51, as opposed to Ledecky’s finishing lap of 31.34, which left her at 3:59.97, the 18th-fastest time of her career.

“I just got to the last turn and felt like I just tightened up,” Ledecky said. “My legs were just dead. Obviously, Ariarne took advantage of that. This stings a little. It’s unfamiliar and different. My physical preparation has been great for this meet, and I really expected to be a lot faster. I knew it was going to be a tough race going in. I was nervous for it.”

What Ledecky has done in the sport is hard to fathom. The combination of her double-digit world records, five Olympic gold medals and 16 medals at the World Championships suggests Ledecky is the greatest female swimmer in history. But beyond the measurable accolades, Ledecky changed the sport for her foes, offering a glimpse of what is humanly possible. Without question, Titmus got the message and believed in the Ledecky realm.

For so long, Ledecky has been known for crushing the spirit of her competition in the opening strokes of her races. She would immediately stomp on the pedal and dare anyone else to go with her, an invitation that was never accepted – until Titmus. In the pre-meet chatter, Titmus expressed her desire to challenge Ledecky and, without sounding cocky, held a belief that it was an actual possibility, and not merely lip service. Yes, in a way, Ledecky created the athlete who took her down in Gwangju.

Considerable credit must go to Ledecky for the path she has forged over the past seven years, first under the guidance of Bruce Gemmell at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club and, most recently, under the watch of Greg Meehan at Stanford University. These partnerships made the sport better and made others dream, including Ledecky’s American teammate, Leah Smith, who with her bronze medaled at the World Champs in the 400 free for the second straight time.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Smith said, alluding to Ledecky. “For the past seven years, we’ve seen her dominate and open up new possibilities for women’s swimming. It’s amazing that we can have a race like that and she deserves massive amount of credit for those times.”

It would be foolish to suggest that Ledecky does not have the ability to bounce back from this setback and gather herself for the remainder of this meet, and more importantly, for the Olympic year. Given the dejected look on her face during the medals ceremony, it was almost like Ledecky was already processing a plan for getting back on top. And with Ledecky’s time barely cracking the top-20 on her personal list, it can be argued that, rather than a decline, Ledecky simply delivered a poor performance.

Like Michael Phelps, Ledecky has routinely demonstrated a hunger to improve and accomplish new feats in the sport. It is a basic guarantee, then, that this setback will serve as significant motivation for the year ahead, when athletes fine-tune their craft to peak at the Olympic Games. For Ledecky, Tokyo would be a third Olympiad, and the perfect stage to atone against Titmus. Meanwhile, a rivalry has also been born, Titmus the global champion until proven otherwise and Ledecky in pursuit. That’s an odd description for Ledecky, who has so long been the target.

“I know she’ll be back,” Titmus said. “She’s the greatest ever, so this isn’t going to bother her. I think it’s probably going to drive her to train harder and next year there will a real battle.”

How the remainder of these World Championships unfold for Ledecky will be determined in short order. She returns to the pool on Monday for the preliminaries of the 1500 freestyle, the final of that race on Tuesday, a day that also includes the prelims and semifinals of the 200 freestyle. As a veteran, even without much experience with defeat, Ledecky is aware of the need to move forward.

“I need to rebound from this,” Ledecky said. “I need to get my fight back.”

5 comments

  1. West Coast Mom

    Excited to see how Ledecky uses this to fuel her training and performance at 2020 Trials.

    • avatar
      Anonymous

      This is a painful loss maybe but for sure the greatest incentive for rebound! She will be back like a destroyer in the water!!!

  2. Paul Anthony

    First Missy, now Katie. NCAA has claimed another victim. Let this be a lesson kids: if you have a program that is working for you, you might want to STAY THERE!

    • Diane Pavelin

      A swimmer still competing for their college has some restrictions and the struggle of balancing academics and swimming, but going pro puts a lot of other obligations on a swimmer.

      Now you’re on the schedule of whatever swim manufacturer you’ve signed with. This means travel, irregular training, and other disruptions. That can be detrimental to consistent and productive training needed to stay at the top. Plus if you’re still in college, you’re juggling classes, training, and pro obligations.

      Something’s going to suffer, and it’s usually training.

    • Paul Anthony

      Diane Pavelin That’s all true. There are many variables, including teen body vs. young adult body. Nevertheless, when you have an athlete going slower in a major meet (twice now) and faster in season, coaching needs to be acknowledged as the main culprit.