Katie Ledecky poses with the silver medal for the Women's 400m Freestyle Final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 26, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — If Katie Ledecky is the Roger Federer of distance freestyle swimming, then Australia’s Ariarne Titmus is the Rafael Nadal. Coming to Tokyo, Ledecky was the defending Olympic champion in the 400-meter freestyle and world record holder, Titmus the reigning world champion.
In the race of the day — perhaps even the race of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 — Titmus passed Ledecky in the final 100 meters and claimed the gold medal in the women’s 400 freestyle. Her time of 3:56.69 was the second fastest of all time, just 0.23 slower than Ledecky’s world record (3:56.46) set at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Ledecky, 24, touched the wall in 3:57.36 — the third fastest time ever and Ledecky’s fastest 400 in five years — and won a silver medal. It is her seventh Olympic medal and her second silver.
“I can’t be disappointed with that,” said Ledecky, who is competing in her third Olympic Games. “It was my second best swim ever, and I fought tooth and nail. That's all you can ask for.”
Bingjie Li from China rounded out the Olympic podium with a time of 4:01.08.
Titmus credited Ledecky with raising the level of distance freestyle swimming.
“I wouldn’t be here without her,” said Titmus, who burst onto the swimming scene at the 2019 world championships when she was only 18. “She’s set this amazing standard for distance freestyle for girls. If I didn’t have someone like her to chase, I definitely wouldn’t be swimming the way I am. I’m really grateful to have her.”
Ledecky took the race out hard and was ahead of world record pace for the first 100 meters. At the 200, she was over a half-second ahead of Titmus.
“Honestly as a 200, I was a little bit worried,” said Titmus.
But the Australian trusted her race plan, and while Ledecky swam steadily, Titmus began swimming each lap a little faster, reeling in her rival.
“I tried to say as composed as I could and use the easy speed that I have,” explained Titmus. “And to pull it off in the backend against someone who has an amazing second half of her race, I’m really proud of that.
Ledecky expected the 400 free to be close. Titmus had beaten her at the 2019 world championships in the same event. But at that meet, Ledecky was fighting a stomach virus.
“She definitely swam a really smart race [at these Olympic Games],” said Ledecky, who is competing in the 200 freestyle semifinals and the 1,500 freestyle prelims tonight. “She was really controlled up front. I felt pretty smooth and strong going out. When I flipped at the 300, I was like, oh, you know, she's right there, so it’s just going be a battle to the end. I didn't feel like I died or really fell off. She just had that faster last 50 or 75 and got her hands on wall first.”
Although she was favored to win all her races here at the Tokyo Olympic Games, Ledecky was not disappointed with her silver medal in the 400 freestyle — or her time.
“I'd much rather get second that way then go 4:00 and get silver to 3:56 [winning time],” she said. “I was right there and just can't be too disappointed with that. I have a lot of racing to go, so just try to use it as momentum.”
Ledecky still has the 200, 800, and 1,500 freestyle races, plus the women’s 4x200 freestyle relay on her Olympic program.
Behind Titmus and Ledecky, Team USA’s Paige Madden finished the 400 freestyle in 4:06.81 for seventh place.