TOKYO — It is easy on days like Wednesday, as Katie Ledecky prepared to tackle more championship meters in a single day than any female swimmer in Olympic history, to forget she is a human being who bleeds and grieves and every once in a while climbs out of the pool without a medal.
Olympic swimming is oppressively hard, just as Olympic gymnastics and any other Olympic sports are, and in the roughly 70 minutes Ledecky was afforded between her finals in the 200-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle, in addition to preparing her body for the back half of that unprecedented double, she would have to wrap her mind around the first finals race in her international career in which she was shut out of the medal stand.
Perhaps it made her gold medal in the 1,500 free — the sixth of her career but first of these Tokyo Olympics — that much sweeter. Those things aren’t handed out like candy, despite the fantasy Ledecky and a few others in her rarefied atmosphere may have scripted over the years. On Wednesday, she earned the living hell out it.
After finishing a disappointing fifth in the 200 free final in a time of 1 minute 55.21 seconds — the gold going to Australian freestyle phenom Ariarne Titmus (1:53.50), silver to Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong (1:53.92), bronze to Canada’s Penny Oleksiak (1:54.70) — Ledecky returned to the starting blocks at Tokyo Aquatic Centre and took her disappointment out on the water in Lane 4.
When she touched the wall at the end of the 1,500, her gold medal secured with a time of 15:37.34 — with American teammate Erica Sullivan second, at 15:41.41, Ledecky sobbed as she hung on the lane line, barely able to pick herself up and make her way out of the pool. She looked exhausted, spent.
The 200 free result was a shocker in that Ledecky, while a decided underdog to Titmus, was expected to press her Australian rival to the last wall. Instead, she never quite fired, turning at the halfway point in fifth place and never summoning a finishing kick. Her final 50 split of 29.66 was more than a half-second off the 29.12 she closed with in the 400 free two nights earlier, when she took the silver behind Titmus’s gold.
It was the 36th final (individual races plus relays) of Ledecky’s international championship career — counting world championships, Pan-Pacific championships and Olympics — and it was the first time she did not earn a medal. Her time was slower than the one she posted at Olympic trials a month earlier (1:55.11), and slower than what she posted at a TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Mission Viejo, Calif. in April (1:54.40). It was also about a second and a half off her winning time in Rio 2016 (1:53.73).
In 2016, when she swam the 200, she didn’t have the added stress of the 1,500 on the same day. It certainly complicated the picture, forcing Ledecky to do a modified warm-down after her 200 and do her best to rest her legs. Ledecky had pulled off the same 200/1,500 double in the evening prelims session Monday evening, which followed her 400 free final that same morning.
The 1,500 seemed literally designed for Ledecky — added to the Olympic program this year, after previously being a men’s-only event, largely because Ledecky had made it essential viewing at world championships over the years. In the prelims, where she paced the field by six seconds, her mark was also, by default, an Olympic record.
Wednesday’s final of the 1,500 brought the familiar (if still disorienting) image of Ledecky nearly lapping opponents, swimming east when they were going west. The 800 and 1,500 are races Ledecky completely reinvented, attacking them with a sprinter’s mentality, but the world is catching up. Her two most recent world championships in the 1,500, in 2015 and 2017, came by a combined 45 seconds. On Wednesday, she won by a little more than four.
Mental health is having a much-welcomed moment in the discourse around elite athletics, sparked most vividly by U.S. gymnast Simone Biles’s withdrawing from the team competition Tuesday night. In swimming, two of the top Olympians in history, Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin have spoken eloquently about their struggles.
Swimmers get no escape from the pressures, if only because you are defined by the cold, hard numbers on the scoreboard: You are what the clock says you are. In swimmer shorthand, sometimes they say, “She goes a 58” — translation: Her best time in some-or-other race is 58 seconds — but sometimes they’ll simply say, “She’s a 58.” Her time is her identity.
Ledecky has certainly known the Tyranny of Times. For the past four-plus years, she has struggled to match her times from Rio, two of which — the 400 free and 800 free — were world records. She tried to tune out the noise, but sometimes it would sneak past her defenses. She knew people questioned whether, now in her mid-20s, she could still match the times she went at 19.
“Yeah, people doubt me,” she said in a moment of self-reflection on Monday, after winning gold in the 400 free with a time that was her fastest since Rio. “People will doubt anyone [who] swims like I did in Rio and then doesn’t get as close [to that again] as people would expect. But yeah, I’ve had to overcome a little bit of that self-doubt. And really, between [U.S. Olympic] trials and today, I did everything I could to eliminate all that from my head and really believe in myself. I felt so good coming into this meet.”
Ledecky suffered through the pandemic like anyone else, isolated clear across the country from her close-knit family, barred from her regular practice pool, reduced to training in the backyard pool of a friend of a friend for a time. She has said little about how dark things got, but it was clear the extra stresses took their toll, and equally clear a return to some semblance of normalcy in her training helped her mental state.
Coming into the Tokyo meet, she said she was “very much at peace with the work I’d put in to get to this point. I felt good going into it, felt confident, felt like I believed in myself. And I think that’s the biggest win of all.”
By the end of Wednesday morning’s session, Ledecky’s odometer at this Olympics sat at a staggering 4,400 meters of racing — more than any woman has ever tackled at a single Olympics, if only because none before this included the grueling 1,500 free — and she still has at least 1,800 to go, including relays.
Not a single one of those 1,800 would be easy, and none of the results were to be taken for granted.