Tokyo — When Katie Ledecky finally saw that familiar number next to her name, the emotions flooded to the surface at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
She tumbled over the lane rope to give her runner-up teammate a hug. She let out an uncharacteristic scream toward the American cheering section in the mostly empty arena. Finally, as the tears seemed ready to flow, she pulled the goggles back down over her eyes before exiting the pool.
On her third try at these Olympics, Ledecky finally touched first.
Bouncing back from the worst finish of her brilliant Olympic career, Ledecky claimed the first-ever gold medal in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle Wednesday.
About an hour earlier, she was blown away by Australia’s Terminator, Ariarne Titmus, who made it 2-for-2 in their rivalry with a victory in the 200 free.
Ledecky didn’t even win a medal – the first time that’s ever happened to her in an Olympic race. She was far behind all the way, never getting any higher than her fifth-place finish.
“After the 200, I knew I had to turn the page very quickly,” Ledecky said. “In the warm-down pool, I was thinking of my family. Kind of each stroke I was thinking of my grandparents.”
Her voice choked with emotion. She crunched her eyes trying not to cry.
“They’re the toughest four people I know,” Ledecky said, “and that’s what helped me get through that.”
The metric mile wasn’t quite the breeze that everyone expected, given Ledecky’s longtime dominance in an event that was finally added to the Olympic program for these games. She built a big lead right from the start, then worked hard to hold off American teammate Erica Sullivan’s blazing finish.
But it was Ledecky touching first in 15 minutes, 37.39 seconds. Sullivan claimed the silver (15:41.41), while the bronze went to Germany’s Sarah Kohler (15:42.91).
“I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything and whatever, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world, people that are truly suffering,” Ledecky said. “I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA.”
A day afterfrom the gymnastics team event, Ledecky insisted that she wasn’t bothered by the burden of enormous expectations placed on her after winning four gold medals and a silver at the 2016 Rio Games.
“I feel like I handle the pressure,” she said. “The biggest pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself and I feel like I’ve gotten past that over the years. I truly just want to enjoy this experience.”
Titmus secured her place as one of the game’s biggest stars and gave the Australian women their third individual swimming gold with an Olympic record of 1:53.50, adding to.
Titmus, who will face Ledecky again in the 800 free, showed compassion for the swimmer who was thought to be her biggest rival.
“I don’t think it’s a bad result for her. She’s still fifth at the Olympic Games,” the Aussie said. “This was the field that had the most depth of all my events.”