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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Prodigy beats legend: Titmus dethrones Ledecky in women’s 400-meters freestyle

This was the most anticipated swimming showdown at the Tokyo Olympics. And somehow, the trans-Pacific hype around the Titmus vs Ledecky clash lived up to the billing.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: July 27, 2021 2:27:50 pm
Ariarne Titmus, Ariarne Titmus coach, Ariarne Titmus swimming, Ariarne Titmus 400m freestyle swimming, Ariarne Titmus coach celebration, Katie LedeckyAriarne Titmus of Australia celebrates after winning the final of the women's 400-meters freestyle at the 2020 Summer Olympics (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

In his minute of delirium, Dean Boxall flouted every rule of the carefully-crafted Olympic playbook. He removed his mask, shouted, hugged, gave high-fives and ran around without a care. And it was hilarious. Unless of course, you were the panic-stricken volunteer who just kept repeating, “puh-lees-uh, puh-lees-uh…”

Boxall, in a state of trance, paid no heed. And he couldn’t be blamed. After witnessing one of the greatest races in Olympic history, it was tough to simply sit quietly and clap, as the rules mandate.

In a final for the ages, 20-year-old swimming sensation Ariarne Titmus chased down seemingly-unbeatable American legend Katie Ledecky on the last lap of the 400m freestyle race to take home the gold medal at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

As she touched the wall for the last time in the race, Titmus’ coach Boxall broke into a wild celebration that is sure to become a meme, while the winner herself was so overcome with emotion that it barely registered to her that Ledecky, in a remarkable show of respect after a heart-breaking loss, hugged and congratulated the Australian.

“I can’t believe it. I’m over the moon,” Titmus said.

This was the most anticipated swimming showdown at the Tokyo Olympics. And somehow, the trans-Pacific hype around the Titmus vs Ledecky clash lived up to the billing.

Idol upstaged

Ledecky was a 15-year-old wunderkind when she won gold in the 800m at the London Olympics in 2012. At 19, she was at the peak of her powers and conquered Rio, leaving the city as the most decorated female athlete with four gold medals, one silver and two world records.

She is the gold standard in women’s swimming. Never challenged. Until Monday.

Titmus has been open about the indirect role Ledecky has played in her career – the more the American achieved, the more the Australian aspired to be like her. The first sign of Ledecky’s dominance coming under pressure came in 2019 when Titmus, under the guidance of a demanding Boxall, defeated her in the 400m freestyle.

It was the first time Ledecky had found her match in the pool and it set them up for a mouth-watering clash at the Olympics. In an Olympic Channel interview, Titmus’ father Steve had predicted ‘Arnie could be in the greatest race that this sport has ever seen.’

His words sound prophetic, in part at least. It was one of the greatest races, if not the greatest.

Race for the ages

Ledecky was fastest off the blocks, doing things only she can – completing laps in mind-boggling speed, drowning opponents in fatigue and looked like she was, once again, competing just against the clock. By the half-way stage of the race, she led Titmus by almost a body length, and 0.66 seconds.

But then, something strange happened. Ledecky got Ledecky-ed. Titmus hung in there even as the others withered. Even she admitted that at the halfway point, her ‘arms weren’t powering her down the lane but were rather digging a hole’, referring to the pattern of her strokes.

Ledecky is used to being alone for the final 100m. This time, she had company. Titmus began to claw her way back into the race near the 300m mark. “I felt pretty smooth and strong going out and looked up at the 300m and was like: ‘Oh, she’s right there’,” Ledecky said.

The final 50m were the tensest we’ve seen in the pool at these Games. Ledecky was throwing the kitchen sink at Titmus and touched the wall in 29.12 seconds, just 0.20 seconds slower than her last 50m time at the Rio Olympics.

But the Australian did not give in. She staved off the pressure from the greatest freestyler and gave everything she had to record the last 50m split in a scarcely-believable time of 28.67 seconds. Ledecky gave one last, desperate push in the final 25m but Titmus survived to win the gold medal in 3 minutes and 56.69 seconds.

This is the second-fastest time in women’s 400m freestyle history, and the first time Ledecky (3:57.36) was beaten in an individual Olympic final. China’s Li Bingjie got the bronze with a timing of 4:01.08, a good four seconds behind the gold medallist.

This was just the first of the three potential clashes between the two in Tokyo. They are set to face each other again in the 200m and 800m freestyle races. This time – and for the first time – Ledecky won’t have the aura of invincibility around her going into a race.

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