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Caeleb Dressel & Katie Ledecky Cement Their Olympic Legacies With More Wins

By Peggy Shinn | July 31, 2021, 3 a.m. (ET)

Caeleb Dressel celebrates winning gold and setting a new world record in the men's 100m butterfly during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo. 


TOKYO — It was a historic morning at the Tokyo Aquatic Center. 

In the men’s 100-meter butterfly, Caeleb Dressel cemented his Olympic legacy, breaking his own world record and winning his second individual gold medal — and fifth overall, with two events left to swim here at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. 

Then Katie Ledecky led the women’s 800-meter freestyle from start to finish, winning her third straight Olympic gold medal in the event. She is the third woman to win three consecutive Olympic titles in the same swimming race.

“It's tough to win one gold medal, and to do it three times in a row in that event, it's amazing,” she said. “That was a really fast field, I knew I had to bring it.”


Dressel Sets World Record In Men’s 100 Butterfly

Dressel got the session started by dominating the men’s 100-meter butterfly, breaking his world record by 0.05 of a second, lowering it to 49.45. 

He held off Hungarian rival Kristof Milak, who swam the fastest second lap for the silver medal and touched the wall in 49.68. Milak is the 2017 world championship silver medalist in the 100 fly.

“I knew what I had to do to execute, and it hurt,” said Dressel of his world-record setting race. “It hurt really bad. But it’s fine.”

“What a close race — two of the fastest times in history,” he added. “You don't get that very often, so to be a part of that is really special.”

Dressel, 24, is known for his speed off the blocks, 21-year-old Milak for his closing speed. So the American’s plan was to start quickly, then hang on. 

“I didn't even die,” said Dressel. “He just came home, really well.”

Then he quipped about Milak: “He’s going to put me out of a job one day, I’ve got to hold on as long as I can.”

It was the first of three races on Dressel’s program today. Within 83 minutes, he set the world record in the 100 fly, won the 50-meter freestyle semifinals, then anchored the U.S. in the Olympic debut of the mixed medley relay to a disappointing fifth place finish.

In the 20 minutes between the 50 free semifinals and the relay, Dressel kept loose by swimming in the diving pool adjacent to the competition pool. It’s a tactic Michael Phelps used at the 2012 London Olympic Games when he swam multiple events in one night.

Speaking of Phelps, Dressel is the first American not named Michael Phelps to win the 100 fly in the 21st millennium. Phelps won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in the event (2004-2012), then finished in a three-way tie for silver at the 2016 Games.

But Dressel has no intention of being the next Phelps. He actually preferred it when fewer people knew his name. 

“The sport was a lot more fun when no one knew my name, to be honest,” Dressel confessed. 

A favorite to win the 100 fly gold medal and bring home six medals from the Tokyo Games, Dressel was uncharacteristically nervous in the ready room before the 100 butterfly. 

“I was like telling my brain to shut up, to be honest, because it was a little bit annoying,” he said. “It's not going to hinder me from executing what my race plan is, it was just a little bit annoying.

“Yeah, I was nervous,” added Dressel, who’s known for his forthrightness and honesty. 
There we go.”

Katie Ledecky poses during the medal ceremony for the Womens 800m Freestyle Final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo.


Ledecky Wins Third Consecutive 800 Freestyle Gold Medal

Next up, Katie Ledecky dove into the pool for her final race at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Since she burst onto the scene at the 2012 London Olympic Games, swimming away with the 800 free gold medal, the race has long been her comfort zone — the longer the better (she also won the women’s 1,500 freestyle earlier in this Olympic meet).

So it was no surprise that the 24-year-old Stanford graduate led the 800 from start to finish, winning her seventh Olympic gold medal in 8:12.57.

But it was not the dominant performance that Ledecky has exhibited in the past, thanks to Australian rival Ariarne Titmus, who beat Ledecky for gold in the 400 freestyle earlier this week. The two have developed a Federer-Nadal-type rivalry in the pool — pushing each other while maintaining a friendship and mutual respect. 

In the 800, Titmus swam the final 100 meters over one second faster than Ledecky and finished in 8:13.83. In her two previous wins in the 800, Ledecky has beaten her closest rivals by 4 seconds (Rio) and 12 seconds (London).

“Ariarne made it tough,” said Ledecky, who added that it was also fun to race such a close rival. “I just trusted myself, trusted that I could pull it out and swim it whatever way I needed to.”

Ledecky knew her friend would be “lurking there the whole time.”

“I knew I had to have a little gap,” explained Ledecky, “because if we were neck and neck going into the last 100, I know she has that finish.”

For Titmus, whose stroke favors the shorter freestyle races, like the 200 and 400 (both of which she won here in Tokyo), Ledecky is in “a class of her own” in the 800. 

This was Ledecky’s third consecutive Olympic gold medal in the 800. It was a statistic that she first heard two years ago: no one has ever three-peated in the women’s 800 freestyle.

“That's been in the back of my mind for so many years now, both in a good way and [bad],” she said. “Sometimes that thought gets to you a little and you think, ‘I wonder if there’s a reason why people have trouble three-peating.’”

The 2020 Olympic Games were arguably Ledecky’s toughest yet. She came to Tokyo as a heavy favorite to win every race she entered. And with the addition of the women’s 1,500 freestyle to the Olympic program, she was swimming far more meters than she ever had before at an Olympic Games. Not to mention the global pandemic that postponed the Games for a year and threw the world into turmoil.

Ledecky opened the 2020 Olympic Games by finishing second to Titmus in the 400 free, then missing the podium altogether in the 200 free. But she won two Olympic gold medals too, and a she anchored the U.S. women’s 4x200 freestyle relay to a silver, almost catching the winner (China).

“I'm really happy,” Ledecky said when asked to assess her meet. “I just wanted to end on a really good note. I knew it would linger with me if I ended on a bad note. So I just tried to use that as motivation to finish on the best note possible.”

After taking a break, Ledecky will dive into the pool again to train for the 2024 Olympic Games, which will be her fourth.

“I’m definitely going through Paris,” she said, “and maybe beyond, we’ll see.”

Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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