Tokyo 2020: To be a legend, defeat a legend
Over the last five years, at every training session, in every conditioning routine, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus focused on just one goal: Katie Ledecky.
Her target, the most successful woman swimmer in history, knew about it. The American, who won four golds with two world records at the Rio Olympics, was aware that it was only a matter of time before someone would come for her.
And, since 2019, after a shock defeat at the worlds, Ledecky knew it would be Titmus.
Their head-to-head in Tokyo was billed as the hot ticket of the swimming competition -- a throwback to rivalries such as Brendan Hansen vs Kosuke Kitajima, or Alexander Popov vs Gary Hall Jr, but without the toxic masculinity (when Popov was stabbed in Moscow after a fight with a watermelon vendor, Hall sent him a Kachini doll with a watermelon in one hand and a dagger in the other).
On Monday, the American champion, 24, and the Australian challenger, 20, crossed paths in a race for the ages.
Here is how the 400m freestyle went down.
Titmus got off the blocks slightly quicker than Ledecky, took a slender lead by the 25m mark, and hit the first split 0.13 seconds ahead. Canadian Summer McIntosh was ahead at that point, but Titmus and Ledecky, side by side in lanes 3 and 4, cared only about each other.
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Ledecky got more out of the first turn and started edging away around the 75m mark. Titmus clawed back, chasing her great rival stroke for stroke. At the 100m split, Ledecky was ahead by 0.07 seconds. On the second turn, the American decided it was time to make her move. She changed gears and began to pull away. The gap increased to half a second by the 150m mark, and to three-quarters of a body length at 200m.
They swam the fifth (out of eight) lengths in an identical 30.02 seconds, and the 0.66 seconds gap was unchanged at the 250m mark. The champion had a point to prove, and it looked like she was going to do it.
But when Ledecky touched the wall at 300m, and found that Titmus was right next to her, only 0.16 seconds behind, she realised there may be a problem. The last 100m showed how Titmus had paced the race to perfection. Ledecky’s head began wobbling in the seventh length as Titmus first moved closer, and then slowly raced past, to get the 350m turn 0.22 seconds ahead. The home stretch was a frantic culmination of Titmus’s five-year obsession. She did the last 50m in just 28.67 seconds, clocking 3:56.69 to Ledecky’s 3:57.36.
In less than four minutes, the queen was dethroned. But it wasn’t the race alone that did it.
Ariarne Titmus was born in Launceston, a riverside town about 200km north of the Tasmanian capital Hobart, a week before the Sydney Olympics. Her family, realising that young Ariarne’s swimming ambition was too large for Tasmania to handle, moved to Brisbane when she was 14.
Ledecky, from Bethesda, Maryland, was born seven months after the Atlanta Games. She started swimming when she was six, sprung a surprise as a 15-year-old by winning the 800m freestyle in the 2012 US trials in Omaha, and went to the London Olympics as the darling of the swim team. There, she beat Rebecca Adlington, the world record holder at the time, to win gold.
The next four years were like a dream – the 400m, 800m, and 1500m at the 2013 world championships, and the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m at the 2015 worlds. When she demolished the competition in Rio for four gold medals and a relay silver, over in Brisbane, Titmus, a 16-year-old on her way to the Muai for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, was watching Ledecky on TV.
That was when the hunt began.
Titmus wanted to be the best, and for that she’d have to take down the greatest ever. She and coach Dean Boxall (the one whose pool-side celebration went viral on Monday) started to mark out their strategy. The story goes that Boxall would shout Ledecky’s name at Titmus during training sessions. Little by little, the queen was creating her conqueror. Titmus alluded to this after the gold: “Katie has set such a high standard. I wouldn’t be here without her.”
Titmus and Ledecky will face off again this week in the 800m. This time, the hunter will be the hunted.