TOKYO – When Katie Ledecky finally saw that familiar number next to her name, the emotions flooded to the surface at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.
She tumbled over the lane rope to give her runner-up teammate a hug. She let out an uncharacteristic scream toward the American cheering section in the mostly empty arena. Finally, as the tears seemed ready to flow, she pulled the goggles back down over her eyes before exiting the pool.
On her third try at these Olympics, Ledecky finally touched first.
Bouncing back from the worst finish of her brilliant Olympic career, Ledecky claimed the first-ever gold medal in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle Wednesday.
About an hour earlier, she was blown away by Australia's Terminator, Ariarne Titmus, who made it 2-for-2 in their rivalry with a victory in the 200 free.
Ledecky didn’t even win a medal — the first time that’s ever happened to her in an Olympic race. She was far behind all the way, never getting any higher than her fifth-place finish.
“After the 200, I knew I had to turn the page very quickly,” Ledecky said. “In the warm-down pool I was thinking of my family. Kind of each stroke I was thinking of my grandparents.”
Her voice choked with emotion. She crunched her eyes trying not to cry.
“They’re the toughest four people I know,” Ledecky said, “and that’s what helped me get through that.”
The metric mile wasn’t quite the breeze that everyone expected, given Ledecky's longtime dominance in an event that was finally added to the Olympic program for these games. She built a big lead right from the start, then worked hard to hold off American teammate Erica Sullivan’s blazing finish.
But it was Ledecky touching first in 15 minutes, 37.39 seconds. Sullivan claimed the silver (15:41.41), while the bronze went to Germany’s Sarah Kohler (15:42.91).
“I think people maybe feel bad for me that I’m not winning everything and whatever, but I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world, people that are truly suffering,” Ledecky said. “I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA.”
Also winning on a busy day at the pool:
— Britain captured its first gold medal in the men's 4x200 freestyle relay since 1908, blowing away the field with a powerhouse group that included the top two finishers in the 200 free individual race, Tom Dean and Duncan Scott. The Americans failed to win a medal in the relay for the first time other than the boycotted Moscow Games in 1980.
— Japan’s Yui Ohashi completed her sweep of the women's individual medley with a victory in the 400, holding off a pair of American teenagers.
— Kristof Milak of Hungary romped to a dominating — but rather nerve-wracking — victory in the men's 200 butterfly after hastily changing out a torn suit just before the race.
Titmus secured her place as one of the game's biggest stars and gave the Australian women their third individual swimming gold with an Olympic record of 1:53.50, adding to her thrilling triumph in the 400 free.
In her first victory, Titmus conserved her energy over the first half, then rallied to pass Ledecky with the second-fastest performance in history.
Ledecky settled for silver and set her sights on redemption in the 200.
Instead, she was nowhere to be found.
The defending Olympic champion made the first flip in seventh place and finished in 1:55.21 -- nearly 2 seconds behind the winner.
Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong led much of the race before hanging on to take the silver in 1:53.92. The bronze went to Canada's Penny Oleksiak in 1:54.70.
“Obviously having a great swim in the 400 gives me confidence coming into the 200,” Titmus said. “I thought my back end was definitely my strength in the 400. I knew I could have that on the way home in the 200.”
Titmus, who will face Ledecky again in the 800 free, showed compassion for the swimmer who was thought to be her biggest rival.
“I don’t think it’s a bad result for her. She’s still fifth at the Olympic Games,” the Aussie said. “This was the field that had the most depth of all my events.”
Indeed, Italy’s Federica Pellegrini of Italy finished seventh in her fifth and final Olympics. She won the gold in 2008 and is still the world-record holder.
A day after Simone Biles' stunning withdrawal from the gymnastics team event, Ledecky insisted that she wasn't bothered by the burden of enormous expectations placed on her after winning four gold medals and a silver at the 2016 Rio Games.
“I feel like I handle the pressure,” she said. “The biggest pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself and I feel like I’ve gotten past that over the years. I truly just want to enjoy this experience.”
The British team was enjoying itself after a historic 4x200 free relay win.
Dean led off for the winners, James Guy and Matthew Richards took the middle legs, and Scott finished off the victory in 6:58.58.
That was just off the world record set by the Americans (6:58.55) at the 2009 world championships during the rubberized suit era.
It was the first British gold in the event since it made its debut at the first London Games more than a century ago. Russia claimed the silver in 7:01.81, while Australia took the bronze in 7:01.84.
The four-time defending champion Americans finished fourth — the first time they’ve failed to win a medal in the event except for '80.
The Americans did pick up a couple of medals in the women's 200 individual medley — but not the one they wanted.
Fresh off her victory in the 400, Ohashi claimed her second gold in 2:08.52, beating 19-year-old Americans Alex Walsh (2:08.65) and Kate Douglass (2:09.04).
Defending Olympic champion and world record-holder Katinka Hosszu of Hungary finished seventh. She was the oldest swimmer in the final at age 32.
There were no surprises in the men's 200 butterfly but plenty of drama behind the scenes.
Milak won the the gold by about two body lengths after hastily changing suits before the race, which he said cost him a chance of breaking his own world record.
Milak said that he realized about 10 minutes before walking on deck that his suit was damaged. He told Hungarian reporters that he totally lost focus, though it was hard to tell from his performance in the pool.
He held up the suit in the mixed zone, putting a finger through the tear before tossing it on a table in disgust.
Milak still touched in an Olympic record of 1:51.25 — more than a half-second off his 2019 world record (1:50.73) but some 2 1/2 seconds ahead of the silver medalist.
Japan’s Tomoru Honda finished in 1:53.73, while the bronze went to Italy’s Federico Burdisso (1:54.45).
South African star Chad le Clos finished fifth. He won the 200 fly at the 2012 London Olympics, upsetting Michael Phelps, but was no match for the Hungarian star.
Caeleb Dressel breezed through the semifinals of the 100 free, his first of three individual events. The American star posted the second-fastest time (47.23), just behind Russia's Kliment Kolesnikov (47.11).
“That’s about what I expected," Dressel said. “It’s going to be a fast final.”
Paul Newberry is an Atlanta-based national writer and columnist covering his 14th Olympics. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and his work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
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