Relief seemed to be the main emotion that sunk into Katie Ledecky’s face as she touched the wall to claim her first gold medal of the Tokyo Olympics.
Ledecky’s victory in the 1500m freestyle on Wednesday came little more than an hour after she had finished fifth in the 200m – her lowest ever placing in an Olympic final. Her mind had searched for positive thoughts in between the two races, first turning to her grandparents, then to the bigger pictures of what winning a sixth Olympic gold of her career would mean.
“I’ve gone to children’s hospitals and met wounded warriors, and their faces light up when they see the gold medal,” Ledecky told reporters after her 1500m victory while struggling to hold back tears.
“That means more to me than anything, the ability to put a smile on someone’s face … So many people around the world are going through a lot of hard things; I’m just lucky to be here.”
While many expected Ledecky to face fierce competition from Australian Ariarne Titmus in the 200m freestyle on Wednesday – one of her four gold-medal events in Rio five years ago – few would have predicted her to finish so far down the field.
But the 1500m provided a more familiar sight, the 24-year-old racing into an early lead that she maintained over the course of the 30 laps.
American teammate Erica Sullivan won silver, just over four seconds behind Ledecky’s winning time of 15:37.34, while Germany’s Sarah Kohler took bronze.
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A ‘pretty darn tough’ mindset
Given her blistering form this year, coupled with her gold medal haul in Rio, the American came into these Games with weighty expectations – mostly, she admits, from herself.
“I am always striving to be my best and to be better than I’ve ever been,” said Ledecky, who holds world records in the 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle events.
“It’s not easy when your times are the world record in some events. You can’t just keep dropping time every single swim, (but) that’s kind of the attitude I have when I approach each race … And that’s pretty darn tough.”
That attitude, she added, can be both a blessing and a curse – motivating her to keep chasing her own standards, while also forcing her to constantly train and compete against her own high expectations.
“I’ve gained perspective over the years,” she said. “I’ve really learned a lot over the years. The times (in Tokyo) might not be my best times, but I’m still really, really happy that I have a gold medal around my neck right now.”
While fans have been kept away from venues in Tokyo amid the pandemic – often creating an atmosphere of eerie quiet – athletes filled the stands on one edge of the pool for Wednesday’s races, cheering teammates and waving banners.
Chants of “USA” rang out around the venue as Ledecky streaked down the pool on her final length of the 1500m – the first time the distance had been held as a women’s Olympic event – to finish 17 seconds outside her world record time from 2018.
Titmus rules the pool
An hour before Ledecky toasted her first gold of the Games, her rival Titmus was celebrating a second.
The Australian, who beat Ledecky to 400m freestyle gold on Monday, also took victory in Wednesday’s 200m freestyle final, with Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey in second and Canada’s Penny Olesiak third.
Stepping off the podium having collected her gold medal, Titmus broke down in tears as she embraced coach Dean Boxall by the side of the pool.
“I’m pretty good at containing my emotions … (but) now that I haven’t got to swim tonight, I think I kind of let it out a little bit,” she told reporters. “Seeing him (Boxall) emotional makes me emotional.”
As for the race itself, Titmus admitted that she was “a little bit surprised” that Ledecky wasn’t with her at the front come the final length. The pair are expected to go head-to-head once again in the 800m freestyle final on Wednesday.
“I feel good,” said Titmus. “I’ve been utilizing the rest that I have as much as I can, so this afternoon I’ll just try and relax.”
Tom Dean’s Covid battle
In Wednesday’s other swimming results, Yui Osashi extended Japan’s stunning gold medal haul in these Games with victory in the women’s 200m individual medley, while Hungary’s Kristof Milak took gold in the men’s 200m butterfly.
The session closed with a victory for Great Britain in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay final ahead of the Russian Olympic Committee and Australia.
The British quartet of Tom Dean, James Guy, Matthew Richards and Duncan Scott set a new European record with their time of 6:58.58 – 0.03 seconds shy of the world record.
The victory was particular poignant for Dean, who has twice contracted Covid-19 during the course of the pandemic.
“The second time much worse than the first, I was quite ill for about 10 days and by myself the whole isolation period,” he told reporters.
“It’s a slow build back up because of the nature of the sport we do and the nature of the disease … I was stuck inside, unable to even exercise inside my own flat.
“It was tough to kind of wrap my head around that during an Olympic year. But my coach managed to keep me grounded and build me back up for Olympic trials, and we were able to have a solid block between then and now and it paid off.”