After losing to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the women’s 400m freestyle, American Katie Ledecky departed the press conference tent at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre with a message: “See you in a few hours.” The five-time Olympic gold medallist was speaking to the gathered media, but she might as well have been talking to Titmus. This isn’t over yet.
The Ledecky v Titmus rivalry will define the Olympic swim meet. Only “rivalry” is not quite the right word. Over the past two years, ever since Titmus beat Ledecky at the 2019 world championships and the American failed to shake her opponent’s hand, the duel between them has been given much oxygen. In the pool, it is certainly box office – one of the best swimmers in history, the reigning queen of the pool, and a young prodigy eager to take the crown.
In the first and arguably most important round of their Tokyo 2020 match-up, the 400m freestyle, Titmus triumphed. The Tasmanian executed a perfect tactical swim – allowing the reigning champion to go out hard, knowing that she could reel her in during the final 100m. It worked, and a new 400m champion was anointed. The queen is dead; long live the queen.
But at a personal level, there has never really between a feud between Titmus and Ledecky (the latter was unwell at the time of her assumed snub and subsequently hospitalised, which could explain the handshake faux pas). These two athletes have immense respect for each other – if anything, they are grateful to have the competition. As much was clear after round one.
“It’s just an honour to race someone like Ariarne, and for us to go two really, really fast times,” said Ledecky. Titmus was effusive with praise. “I wouldn’t be here without her," ella dijo. “If I didn’t have someone like her to chase, I definitely wouldn’t be swimming the way I am.”
Si algo, the duo are racing themselves rather than each other. It is a common cliché for athletes to say that they are only focused on their own effort, their own time, their own lane. In a sense, that was literally true on Monday: with the pair separated by a lane, they could not tell who was in the lead. “I didn’t know I was in front until I saw the scoreboard,” said Titmus.
But it was also true at a more intrinsic level. In the aftermath of the 400m epic, amid all the hype, there were two young women happy with their own incredible performances – whatever the results.
“I think I just came into this race very much at peace with the work that I had put in to get to this point,” said Ledecky, revelling in her second fastest 400m swim of all time. “I felt good, I felt like I really believed in myself. And I feel like that’s the biggest win of all.” The earnestness in Ledecky’s voice made it clear that this was no mere platitude.
The feeling was mutual. “I guess if I had of come away from my time, but with a silver medal, and not been able to win, I still would have been content as well, because I couldn’t have done anything else,” said Titmus.
En tokio, there will be three more rounds of Ledecky v Titmus. On Wednesday they are expected to face off in the 200m freestyle final (the heats begin on Monday night), before slugging it out in the 800m freestyle final on Saturday. They will also swim off in the women’s 4 x 200m relay – scheduled for Thursday – as Australia and the United States go head to head. Ledecky won gold in all three in Rio. A repeat of that feat is now in doubt.
Because for all the talk about swimming for themselves, both Ledecky and Titmus know that there is only gold medal on the table in each race. “Not very many people win,” Ledecky said, having lost an individual Olympic final for the first time. “Most of us [don’t] – in this case, there’s one winner and 20-25 other people in the race.”
El lunes, that winner was Titmus. El miércoles, Thursday or Saturday – it could be either of them. Titmus has beaten the champion in round one. “I was excited that to win this event I had to beat a great champion,” she said afterwards. “I think that makes it even more satisfying.” There is every chance Ledecky will hit back in round two.
There may be mutual respect, there may be an introspective focus from both. But Ledecky and Titmus each came here to win. The duel in the pool continues.