The question when Katie Ledecky stepped onto the blue and white starting block at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Sunday wasn’t if she would win, but by how much.
The unassuming 19-year-old may be the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic swimming team, but the stiffest competition she usually faces in each race comes from the clock. Ledecky holds three world records and possess a unique combination of speed and endurance that allows her to challenge history every time she’s in the pool.
Ledecky’s dominance continued on the second day of the swimming competition as she demolished the field in the 400-meter freestyle in characteristic fashion and broke the world record she set two years earlier.
Her record time was 3 minutes 56.46 seconds, bettering her previous mark by almost two seconds.
“Pure happiness,” said Ledecky, who also won gold in the 800-meter freestyle at the London Olympics when she was 15.
No other swimmer had even finished as Ledecky’s celebration started. She doesn’t just win, she gives those trailing behind her no chance.
Britain’s Jazz Carlin finished second — about five seconds after Ledecky — and Leah Smith, a first-time U.S. Olympian, came in third.
“Even though she was so far ahead of me, I like swimming next to Katie,” Smith said. “I mean, if I am anywhere near her, I’m probably having a good race.”
Ledecky now holds nine of the 10 fastest all-time swims in the event. The third-fastest one came several hours earlier Sunday during the preliminary heat. She positioned herself to challenge the world record in the final 50 meters — this is a frequent theme — but missed it by fourth-tenths of a second.
Afterward, Ledecky, also a gold-medal favorite this week in the 200-meter freestyle and 800 freestyle, blamed a “lackadaisical” push to the wall. Even with a swim that would have represented a life-altering occasion for any other woman in the world, she found room for improvement. She is calm, matter-of-fact and fixated on improving.
The near-miss in the preliminary combined with a fast pool left even less doubt than usual about how the final would end. Ledecky wasn’t shaking before the race — even the world’s most dominant swimmer sometimes has to fight off nerves — and said she felt completely relaxed.
During the race, she didn’t think much about a world record. Instead, Ledecky focused on how her body felt and kept her eyes on the black line guiding her to gold along the bottom of the lane.
“I felt like I had a lot left at the end and I let it all out,” she said.
If the seven other swimmers had been anywhere close, the energy Ledecky so easily mustered for the final surge would’ve been crushing. Ledecky treated it more like a sprint — she had practice Saturday when she anchored the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay that won silver — and made the final meters look effortless.
On the men’s side, the U.S. held off France to win gold in the 400 freestyle relay. The victory gave Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, his 19th gold medal and 23rd medal overall. Phelps, in his first race at his fifth Olympics, gave the U.S. the lead with a strong second leg. Ryan Held and Nathan Adrian, the defending Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, didn’t relinquish it.
“It was crazy,” Phelps said of the raucous environment in the stadium during the race. “I was standing on the blocks . . . and I honestly thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest.”
The veteran wasn’t sure if he’s ever heard anything like it.
Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom broke the mark she set in the 100-meter butterfly. Dana Vollmer, who won gold in the event four years ago and returned to swimming after having a child 16 months ago, placed third.
And a day after Britain’s Adam Peaty smashed his world record in the 100-meter breaststroke during the preliminary heats, he bettered it again en route the winning the final. Cody Miller of the U.S. took bronze.
But the night belonged to Ledecky. She brushed off the accomplishment in understated fashion that’s as typical as her head-shaking performances.
“First I checked my time,” Ledecky said. “Then I waited a bit.”
And this is only the start.