By Martin Gallagher
Coming into the Rio Olympics, Katie Ledecky had left a swim platform a dozen times in finals races at major international meets. Every time she touched the wall first.
Last night at Estadio Olympico, Ledecky (above) made it 13 for 13, dominating the women’s 400-meter freestyle as everyone who has paid swimming a moment’s notice the past year knew she would.
After breaking the Olympic record in her afternoon heat, the 19-year-old Ledecky put her first exclamation point on these Olympics, winning gold in a world record time of 3:56:46, nearly two seconds better than her previous mark. Silver medalist Carlin Jazz of Great Britain was nearly five seconds and some 10 meters behind Ledecky, finishing in 4:01.23. Leah Smith of the U.S. took the bronze in 4:01.92.
“Pure happiness,” Ledecky said.
Ledecky’s win was just one highlight of a thrilling night in the pool that included three world records and Michael Phelps’s Olympic return in a battle for the ages in the most competitive men’s 4×100 freestyle relay ever.
With Phelps powering through a blistering second leg in 47.12, the U.S. topped France to reclaim one of swimming’s glamour titles in 3:09.92, .61 ahead of the French. Australia took the bronze.
For Phelps, the relay win give him his 19th gold medal and a 23rd overall. When Phelps hit the water the U.S. men were .02 out of the lead after Caleb Dressel’s opening leg.
When Phelps touched the wall the U.S. men were more than a second ahead and never looked back with defending 100-meter champion Nathan Adrian swimming the anchor.
Phelps isn’t swimming the 100 free later this week. Perhaps he should. His 47.12 would be one of the fastest at that distance all year.
Phelps noted it was the fastest 100-meter freestyle of his career. He said before the race he told his teammates, “It’s OK to sing and it’s OK to cry,” on the podium.
It was the second medal in 24 hours for Ledecky, who won a silver in the 4×100 freestyle relay Saturday night, swimming a distance that she has barely competed at internationally.
After that race, which began at 11:30 p.m. Ledecky ate, warmed down, and got a massage before leaving the stadium to head back to the Olympic Village. Despite the pressure that swimmers often feel swimming as part of a team, Ledecky said beginning the meet with a relay set her ease and somehow made her more relaxed heading into her individual races. She said she fell asleep around 2:45 a.m.
Twelve hours later, she re-started her quest for five medals. After a quick reminder from coach Bruce Gemmell to adjust her stroke rate for a longer race, she hit the water again just before 3 p.m. for her heat in the 400 freestyle. When she finished, she said it was the easiest sub-four minute 400 she has ever experienced.
“I’m just trying to get into the right tempo,” Ledecky said.
She did that and more Saturday night, leading wire-to-wire and charging for the finish like she wanted to demolish her previous mark.
Indeed it is Ledecky’s ability to adjust her tempo that separates her from every other female swimmer on the planet. No one else wins medals as part of a sprint relay team and holds world records at 800 and 1,500 meters, a distance women don’t even race in the Olympic meet and one where she would surely win another medal if they did.
In swimming circles, all distance champions are considered freaks, because anyone with enough lung capacity to tear through a substance 800-times more dense than air at roughly 100-meters per minute is by definition abnormal. But someone who can do that and also drop down and hold her own against the fastest female swimmers in the world is almost alien.
U.S. coach Dave Marsh Saturday said Ledecky was just a notch below super-hero status, and Ledecky did little to change his mind Sunday night. Ledecky has been scaring her two-year-old 400-record for more than a year. She set it in August 2014, swimming 3:58.37. Ledecky’s task is made even harder because she is so much better than everyone else that no one is ever pushing her down the stretch in a distance race.
Her strokes won’t win any awards for aesthetics. She is all power, churning her hips as her left arm shoots forward like a spring and her right arm and shoulder fly out the water like a galloping horse. Of course, no one cares what it looks like and she is only concerned with what it produces, which is likely to be much, much more.
“I know what my best times are, and I have my goals,” Ledecky said Sunday.
There will likely be plenty more hardware in the coming days. Ledecky is the favorite to win 200 and 800 freestyle and anchor the favored U.S. women in the 4×200 freestyle relay.
Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden crushed the field in the 100 meter butterfly with a world record time of 55.48. Sjostrom, who took control of the race after the turn, was nearly a full second faster than silver medalist, Penny Oleksiak of Canada, a remarkable gap for such a short race. American Dana Vollmer took the bronze.
Though not unexpected, the outcome was a bittersweet Vollmer, the defending Olympic champion. Vollmer retired after the London Games and had a baby. Then, when her baby was just an infant, she began to feel the itch to race again and came out of retirement to give the Olympics another shot.
“I just don’t want it to be automatic for Sjostrom,” Vollmer said recently.
It looked that way, but that Vollmer got to the podium as a mother is remarkable accomplishment in a sport dominated by youth.
Sjostrom had set an Olympic record in the event Sunday in the qualifying heat, then did herself one better by breaking her own world record in the final.
In the 100-meter breaststroke, Adam Peaty of Great Britain broke his world record for the second time in two days, winning in 57.13. Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa took the silver and American Cody Miller picked up the bronze.
Peaty, who led wire-to wire, set the world record of 57.55 in his qualifying heat Saturday.