RIO DE JANEIRO - This was a race, not a Katie Ledecky victory parade. It left her face contorted from exhaustion, the result of an effort that took every ounce of her physical and mental strength.
She had prevailed in a scintillating Olympic final of the 200-meter freestyle, the one individual event of her three in Rio where the challenge was an opponent, not the clock. She had held off the late surge of Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, who had the fastest 200 in the world this season – until Tuesday night.
Ledecky had won her second 2016 Olympic freestyle gold and now seems virtually certain to join compatriot Debbie Meyer as the only women to win the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in the same Olympics, with Meyer having done it in 1968.
“Katie is the queen of freestyle,” Sjostrom said.
The 800 remains, with the prelims Thursday and final Friday. The longer the distance, the more dominant Ledecky becomes.
“Oh, gosh, she’s got a fight tonight,” Meyer said via telephone from California a few hours before the final. “But I think she’s going to succeed. She has that goal in her mind, and nothing gets in her way.”
Not even being ready to throw up in the final 25 meters from the pain of the effort. She burped and then fought off that uncomfortable feeling just at the moment she needed to fight off Sjostrom, who won the 100 butterfly in world-record time earlier this week.
“Everything hurt at the end,” Ledecky said. “I’m really happy it hurt, because it means I pushed myself to the max. That was a crazy race, a lot of fun.”
At 100 meters, Ledecky trailed Australia’s Emma McKeon by a whisper but was more than a second ahead of Sjostrom. Ledecky took the lead soon after but Sjostrom shaved off inches in each of the final two laps before losing by about one-third of a body length.
“I was surprised to be that close,” Sjostrom said. “I didn’t have anything left to give in the last 50. I was lucky to have Katie’s wake to swim on. I was standing still.”
Ledecky’s time, 1 minute, 53.73 seconds, is both her personal best and the new world leader for 2016. Sjostrom also had a personal best (1:54.08), with McKeon third in 1:54.92. Federica Pellegrini of Italy, the world record holder (1:52.98) and 2008 Olympic champion, was fourth.
“In some ways, it’s very stressful being in that tough of a final,” Ledecky said. “(But) I really do like racing. Being in a tough field is something I really enjoy.”
There were hugs all around among the medalists. Ledecky embraced Sjostrom in the water and McKeon as they were leaving the pool deck.
Asked about the now celebrated finger-wagging with which some winners have celebrated, Ledecky shrugged. “I like to stay out of that,” she said.
The 200 was the third freestyle distance Ledecky has swum in these Olympics. She contributed anchor legs in the prelims and finals of Saturday’s 4x100-meter, helping the U.S. win a silver medal. She broke her own world record in the 400-meter freestyle Sunday. She is to swim a leg of the 4x200 freestyle Wednesday.
The ability to change tempos for those varied distances is the latest thing about Ledecky that has awed other swimmers.
“It’s absolutely amazing, I think, to have the versatility to have all those different speeds in four different races. It just says a huge amount for her athletic ability,” Dana Vollmer said after joining Ledecky on the U.S. team in the sprint relay final.
“The changing speeds thing is hard to do. I can’t do it,” said Caeleb Dressell, a pure sprinter who led off the victorious U.S. men’s 4x100 relay. “She’s amazing.”
Olympic champion Ryan Lochte has had a relatively broad range, from the 100 freestyle (under 50 seconds) to the 400 individual medley (just over four minutes). He knows what it takes to handle it all – and that few can do it.
“That’s what she trains for,” Lochte said. “She’s an animal. She can swim distance, sprint, mid-distance, it doesn’t matter. She just loves getting on those blocks and racing at this stage.”
In the 100-meter, according to USA Swimming high performance director Russell Mark, each of Ledecky’s full stroke cycles lasts about 1.1 seconds. It is 1.2 seconds in the 200, 1.3 in the 400, 1.4 in the 800.
The differences are small. The trick is being able to shift into a rhythm that translates to about five more strokes per lap in the 100 than in the 800.
“The hard part about going from long races to sprints,” Meyer said, “is you have to get into your (stroke) tempo a lot quicker. You learn to do it in practice.”
Part of it comes from the approach Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, has instilled in her.
"Bruce says, 'Every race is a sprint; some people sprint longer than others,'" Ledecky explained.
Still, Ledecky found herself using too high a tempo in Monday’s semifinal, when she was second to Sjostrom. She thought it was better in the final, allowing her to pick up the pace in the final 100 meters.
“By the end,” she said, “I was just moving my arms and legs as fast as I can.”
Fighting her queasiness, Ledecky thought only of getting to the wall and being done with it. Getting there first apparently settled her stomach, allowing her to smile. And then wince. It hurt so good.
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.