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Coverage of Pac-12 student-athletes,
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at the Tokyo Olympics

Double Done: Ledecky the first woman to win Olympic 1,500m gold

Jul 28, 2021
Clive Rose/Getty Images

TOKYO – Just before noon on Wednesday at the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Tokyo, Katie Ledecky looked despondent.  She had just placed fifth in the women’s 200-meter freestyle, her worst result in nine years at a major event. 

“It was hard. I knew I had to turn the page very quickly,” she said.

Instead of squeezing a medal ceremony between her two finals in Wednesday’s already highly-anticipated 200/1,500 double and worrying about whether she would have enough time to properly cool down and warm up – she took the solid-but-unexpected 40-minute block in the practice pool and thought of her family.

“With each stroke I was thinking of my grandparents, the toughest four people I know,” she said later, still emotional. “That’s what helped me get through that [disappointment].”

Yet there was neither joy nor ferocity on Ledecky’s face as the 15-time world champion walked onto the blue pool deck for her second event of the day: the Olympic debut of the women’s 1,500m. Unlike all her other finals so far in Tokyo, Ledecky would not have to contend with Ariarne Titmus in that race. Titmus was the 20-year-old Australian who had just replaced the 24-year-old Stanford graduate as the Olympic champion in the 200m moments earlier, and in the 400m on Monday. 

But then again, who would smile before racing 30 laps in the middle of a grueling schedule that entailed racing more mileage than Michael Phelps had ever swum at a single Games?

In the end, Ledecky led swimming’s longest pool race from start to finish for the first time in her three Tokyo finals to claim her first gold of the Games in 15 minutes, 37.34 seconds – 4.07 seconds ahead of the silver medalist, Erica Sullivan of the U.S.

The gold, Ledecky said, “means a lot. I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything. But I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world. People are truly suffering.”

Admittedly, Ledecky said, “I kinda thought that the better my 200 would be, the better my mile was going to be – just from the adrenaline I would get from that. Things didn’t work out super well there.”

Instead of successfully defending the 200-meter freestyle gold medal that she’d won five years ago in Rio when she was 19 and had just committed to attending STANFORD, Ledecky had the fastest reaction time off the blocks in Tokyo, but fell to seventh place after the first 50 meters. She moved up to fifth by the midpoint, but every subsequent 50-meter split was slower than the last and she finished two steps off the podium.

“I feel like I handle the pressure,” Ledecky said in retrospect and a day after two other superstars, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, were unexpectedly eliminated from their events. (Osaka was upset by a little-known player in the third round of tennis, and Simone Biles pulled out of the women’s team gymnastics events after an uncharacteristically off vault, saying “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to.”) 

“The biggest pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself,” Ledecky said. “I’ve gotten past that over the years. I truly just want to enjoy this experience, no matter the outcome. I know that I’ve put in the work and have done everything I could do for these past five years to prepare for this Games.”

“I’m so happy to go 1-2 with Erica in the first women’s mile. Can’t have a better outcome than that,” she said.

“I definitely wanted to get at least one [gold in Tokyo]. I checked that box. I still, always, have the big picture in mind. I have a relay tomorrow and the 800 still left so I still have some great events ahead of me that I need to now turn my focus to.”

Meanwhile, Ledecky’s stature on the U.S. team hasn’t diminished in the least. “It means the world,” Sullivan said of placing second to Ledecky in the women’s 1,500m.

Asked if she ever thought she might catch Ledecky during the race, Sullivan said, “Oh no!  Do you know who that girl is?

“She’s just such a bad chick. She’s such a cool human being. She’s a legend. And she’ll forever be a legend.”