Katie Ledecky wins gold in first Olympic 1,500 freestyle, finishes fifth in 200

Katie Ledecky celebrates after winning the women's 1,500-meter freestyle.
Katie Ledecky celebrates after winning the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics on Wednesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The week has been filled with tumult at the Summer Olympics. Big names pulled out of competition. The host city reported its highest one-day total of coronavirus cases. A typhoon buffeted the region with rain and wind. Pre-event light shows swirled through arenas devoid of fans because of the pandemic.

Leave it to Katie Ledecky to provide a few minutes of normalcy.

The 24-year-old completed a grueling double by cruising to victory in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Wednesday, about an hour after swimming the 200 freestyle final.


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“People maybe feel bad that I’m not winning everything, but I want people to be more concerned about other things in the world,” Ledecky said. “People are truly suffering. I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal.”

No other swimmer at the Games attempted a similar test of speed and endurance. The feat looked routine. She spent most of the race in a familiar position: all alone in the lead with the seven other competitors trailing far behind.

Ledecky finished in 15 minutes 37.34 seconds — the fifth individual Olympic gold of her decorated career — in a race she’s dominated like no other woman.

After touching the wall, she pumped her arm in celebration. Then she hugged teammate Erica Sullivan, who used a strong push in the final laps to win silver, in the adjacent lane.

Katie Ledecky and Erica Sullivan show off their gold and silver medals.
Katie Ledecky, right, and Erica Sullivan show off their gold and silver medals after their 1-2 finish in the 1,500-meter freestyle Wednesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“She’s a legend and she’ll forever be a legend,” Sullivan said. “The fact that I get to swim in the same generation as her, it’s just so cool.”

The event joined the women’s Olympic program for the first time, though the men have competed in at the Games since 1904. That provided an opportunity for Ledecky to win gold in an event in which the outcome was as certain as, if not more certain than, any other competition.

When Ledecky swims the 1,500, the real race is for second place. She first broke the world record in the event in 2013, her most recent record is from 2018 and, including Wednesday’s race, she owns the top 13 times in history. No one else is close.

But it wasn’t just the victory, impressive as it might have been, that stood out; it also was how Ledecky did it. The race capped an exhausting 48-hour span in which she swam 4,000 meters over six races.

Competing in the 1,500 is demanding enough. Adding a sprint like the 200 an hour beforehand doesn’t happen unless your name is Ledecky.

Katie Ledecky walks away from the pool at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre after finishing fifth.
Katie Ledecky walks away from the pool at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre after finishing fifth in the 200-meter freestyle Wednesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

However, her morning didn’t start in characteristic fashion.

The 200 freestyle is the most competitive event in Ledecky’s program, but she entered the final as the defending Olympic champion and appeared on track to contend for a medal, if not challenge to claim gold again, after promising swims during the preliminaries and semifinals.

It quickly became apparent this wasn’t a normal race. Ledecky fell to seventh place after the first 50 meters and never challenged the leaders. The sight of the woman who has dominated freestyle swimming for more than a decade — and makes a habit of winning long-distance races by several body lengths — trailing by such a margin was jarring for the handful of athletes, officials and media in the building.

Australian sensation Ariarne Titmus, who recorded the second-best all-time mark in the event last month, won in 1:53.50. Ledecky improved her semifinal time by a tenth of a second, but still finished more than a second and a half behind in fifth place.

“Bloody exhausted,” said Titmus, who will race Ledecky later this week in the 800 freestyle. “That was a hell of a tough one.”

It was the second time Titmus has gotten the better of Ledecky at the Games after edging her in the neck-and-neck 400 freestyle Monday. In that race, at least, Ledecky recorded her best time in three years and the second fastest of her career, and sounded satisfied with the accomplishment, even if it earned silver instead of gold.

Ledecky’s first six Olympic finals — spanning London, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo as she transformed from a little-known teenager to one of the faces of the sport — ended on the podium.

This was the first miss.

“I knew I had to turn the page very quickly and in the warm-down pool I was just thinking of my family,” Ledecky said. “Each stroke I was thinking of my grandparents. They’re the toughest four people I know and that’s what helped me get through that.”

The sting didn’t last long. The 1,500 beckoned. And so did another gold medal.