RIO DE JANEIRO - Four years ago this week, Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington had a first-hand view of the moment that surprisingly was the start of the Katie Ledecky era in women’s swimming.
Saturday afternoon, on the opening day of swimming at the 2016 Olympics, Adlington had a different vantage point on another Ledecky swim that seemed equally surprising.
A near-repeat performance Saturday night brought Ledecky a silver medal in the 4x100-meter freestyle, an event in which there had been no guarantee she would compete.
“She’s just amazing,” Adlington said as she stood on a bus for the brief ride between the pool and the Main Press Center.
Adlington, 2008 Olympic champion in the 800, was in the pool four years ago during Ledecky’s lone swim at the 2012 Olympics. It was the 800, where Ledecky, then 15, was the upset winner in U.S.-record time, and Adlington took bronze.
This time, Adlington watched from the stands as Ledecky opened her Games with a dazzling swim in what was now the first of her five events and the only one in which she had little chance of winning a gold medal.
Ledecky anchored the U.S. in the preliminaries with a split of 52.64 seconds and in the final with a 52.79, helping her team to a U.S.-record time of 3 minutes, 31.89 seconds. Heavily favored Australia won in a world record 3:30.65.
“We couldn’t be happier with our silver medal and American record,” Ledecky said.
More importantly, it also means the expectations that Ledecky – a distance swimmer, not a sprinter - will do amazing things in this meet look justified.
“She’s not superwoman, but she’s pretty super,” U.S. women’s head coach Dave Marsh said.
With the usual hitch in her stroke accentuated by the speed of her turnover for the 100, Ledecky powered through the final 50 meters of both her afternoon and evening swims.
“It was weird to see her swim that way,” Adlington said. “Her stroke is usually so long. (But) she has such a good kick.”
That kick had not been good enough at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming five weeks ago, when Ledecky finished seventh in the 100-meter final. Although the top six often go on to swim the Olympic relay, anyone on the team can be used, and Ledecky had wasted no time lobbying for a chance.
It came, according to Marsh, when Dana Vollmer, the sixth finisher in the 100 at trials, told the U.S. coaches a week ago she preferred to concentrate Saturday on the 100 butterfly, in which Vollmer is reigning Olympic champion.
Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, told her then it was “probable” she would be in the relay, at least for the prelims.
“I was hoping I still would be considered, and I was honored to be put on that relay,” Ledecky said. “It made the first swim of the meet a lot more fun than it usually is. I think that bodes well for the rest of the week.”
Without the sprint free relay, her first swim here would have been Sunday’s heats of the 400 freestyle. She also is to swim the 200 and 800 freestyles and a leg of the 4x200 free.
Abbey Weitzeil and Simone Manuel, the top two finishers in the 100 at trials, moved into the relay final after sitting out the prelims. Vollmer also wound up in the relay final 90 minutes after qualifying for Sunday’s butterfly final.
“I never wanted to be on a relay so badly,” Vollmer said.
Ledecky’s time in the prelims was briefly the third-fastest free relay split in U.S. history, a list topped by Dara Torres’ 52.27 at the 2008 Olympics. Weitzeil topped Ledecky in the final with a 52.56.
“Katie has that amazing ability to change her rhythm for each race (distance),” Vollmer said. “I know she is an absolute fighter, and I had no fear of her being our anchor.”
Ledecky had not swum on a 400 relay since graduating from high school in 2015. This was her first sprint freestyle relay appearance for the United States. She admitted to feeling herself shaking on the blocks in the prelims but was calmer by the final.
“It’s pretty nerve-racking going fourth and waiting and seeing everyone go fast,” Ledecky said. “They set me up really well, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Philip Hersh, who is covering his 18th Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.