Ariarne Titmus won her first international swimming medal when she was 16, at the 2017 swimming world championships in Hungary. Her coach, newly famous Dean Boxall, remembers it well. “When she went up, she’d never got a medal [before],” he recalled. “In Budapest, you’re on the top of the grandstand looking down, it was huge for her. There were so many Hungarians screaming and carrying on. She didn’t understand that people blow-dried your hair and put make up on [before the medal ceremony]. She came down and she was emotional.”
But Boxall remembers what happened next, too – and those memories are less positive. “The next day she was terrible – she swam 17 seconds off her best,” he said. Having claimed bronze in Budapest as the anchor swimmer in the women’s 4x200m medley relay, Titmus struggled to back up in the 800m freestyle heats the following day. She finished third in her heat, placing 14th overall. The final was ultimately won by Katie Ledecky.
Having conquered Ledecky in the 400m freestyle on Monday to earn her maiden Olympic medal, Titmus faces her American foe again on Wednesday in the women’s 200m freestyle final. Round two of the Ledecky v Titmus duel in the pool will be a great test of the 20-year-old Australian and her evolution since 2017. If Titmus prevails again she will have a strong claim to taking Ledecky’s crown.
“We’ve had to develop that [ability to get] through the meet,” continued Boxall. “Right now you’ve just got an Ariarne that has evolved. She is pretty grounded – you can see, she came up to me [after the win on Monday], I think I was more emotional than her. She was basically saying, ‘you need to settle down’.
The Wednesday morning final will be another flyer. Titmus qualified fastest on Tuesday, to earn lane four, while Ledecky will be next to her in lane three after swimming the third quickest time (the pair were split across the two semi-finals). But Titmus insisted that the 200m was about more than just her rivalry with Ledecky.
“It’s always great racing Katie – it’s exciting for everyone, including myself,” she said. “But I think the 200m especially, it’s not just Katie and I. It’s a very very strong field … I think it’s anyone’s race tomorrow.”
Titmus heads into Wednesday’s race as favourite – she set the second-fastest 200m freestyle time in history at the Australian Olympic trials last month, barely one-tenth of a second off a world record that has stood since 2009. Ledecky, in contrast, only sits fifth in the all-time 200m rankings – with a time she swam five years ago, in Rio. But having lost to Titmus in the 400m freestyle, the American will need to pull out something special to rebound 48 hours later.
Boxall, for his part, is optimistic that the young swimmer he has nurtured over the four years since Budapest will not repeat her mistakes. “Arnie is just getting better and better,” he said. “She was confident after 2019 [when Titmus first beat Ledecky] – she was ready to tackle it – but I think she’s just maturing as a girl. Her life around her, she’s put things in order, she’s not this little girl that came to me when she was 15. That’s why she’s just blossomed.” In the 200m freestyle, we will find out just how far she has come.
On Monday, after Ledecky had been defeated, an American journalist asked her a hard question. “When was the last time that you felt like you swam a great race and just got beaten by a racer with something better?” the reporter queried (when Ledecky lost to Titmus at the 2019 world championships, she was unwell and subsequently hospitalised).
Ledecky, seated at an elevated press conference table surveying a room of writers hanging on her every word, was suddenly speechless. “Umm,” she uttered. Ledecky paused, reflecting on a glittering career of many victories and few losses. “Umm,” she said again. Finally, she had an answer: never in an individual race in recent memory. “I guess some relays where I’ve had really good splits and we haven’t come out on top,” Ledecky offered. “But yeah, it’s a rarity for me.”
It is a rarity for Ledecky to swim well and be beaten once in a competitive meet. But it is unheard of for the American queen of the pool to swim well twice, and be beaten twice. Round two of Ledecky v Titmus will be a nail-biting race. If Titmus triumphs once more, her American rival may again be lost for words.