TOKYO — Katie Ledecky, the Rio 2016 gold medalist in the women’s 200-meter freestyle, finished fifth in that same event here Wednesday morning. Fifth.
Katie Ledecky not winning? OK. She had finished second Monday in the 400 free, behind Ariarne Titmus of Australia, who won the 200. Titmus has indisputably emerged as one of the big stars of these Tokyo 2020 Games, along with her exuberant coach, Dean Boxall, who this time found his way to the pool deck to embrace Titmus, who finally let loose with tears because she had, again, vanquished Ledecky.
The immediate challenge for Ledecky after the 200 was that within an hour she had another race, the 1500, what swimmers call a mile. Now Ledecky had to get herself together. Because this was destiny. This was the first time in the history of the Olympic Games that women were being allowed to swim a 1500-meter final — it had been on the program for men since 1908 — and she was the undisputed favorite. The Top 10 all-time performers in this race. All 10: Katie Ledecky.
The performance that Katie Ledecky delivered in the 1500 is one for the ages — a commanding win in 15:37.34. Erica Sullivan, the other American in the race, took second, 15:41.41. Sarah Kohler of Germany touched third, 15:42.91.
What’s all the more memorable, however, is how Katie Ledecky got her mind right for this 1500.
It’s not just that Ledecky is an amazing swimmer. That’s more than obvious. This Tokyo 1500 is her sixth Olympic gold; she has two silvers, the 400 here, another from the 4x1 relay in Rio. Across four swim world championships since 2013, she has 18 medals — 15 gold, three silver.
Katie Ledecky is, in so many ways, a champion. She is grounded in her family, her friends, her community, her country. At 24, she doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. In her selflessness, she shows profound leadership.
All this matters way more than swimming.
As soon as the 200 was over, she said, it was over. She immediately switched to how she could be happy and focused for the mile. What makes her happy? Thinking about her family. Especially her grandparents. So she thought about them.
People who might somehow feel sorry or bad for her because she didn’t win — because she took fifth?
“I’m kind of at peace with it,” she said.
“I laugh when I see things that say someone ‘settled for silver’ or those kind of things. There are so many Olympians who have won silver or bronze who are deserving of praise. Just because I’ve won golds all the time, going into that doesn’t mean the silver doesn’t mean something to me.
“… I was thinking about my family when I was warming down. I was also thinking about, yeah, the kind of the power of the gold medal and what I have experienced over the years and how I have gone to children’s hospitals and met some warriors and their faces light up when they see a gold medal and,” she said, “I really wanted to get a gold medal to have that opportunity again.”
At this point, in a tent thrown up outside the Tokyo Aquatics Center, sitting in front of a table, with a mask in front of her face, talking to a gaggle of reporters from around the world, the room deathly silent, Katie Ledecky sought to hold back tears.
She went on after a moment:
“… I would much rather people be concerned about people truly struggling in life. It’s a true privilege to be at an Olympics, let alone an Olympics in the middle of a pandemic.”
Fifth place? Some perspective, please?
“A lot of people are going through hard things. Yeah, I’m just lucky to be here and appreciate so much the support and the cheers and the eyes we get on swimming every four years, every five years. It’s like nothing else. We don’t get this kind of support every year. I truly do appreciate the support and concern and attention and interest in our sport.
“And I hope,” Katie Ledecky, gold medalist in the 1500, said, “people can pour that kind of energy into other things as well.”