Adlington, who earned the bronze medal in 8:20.32, spoke almost reverently about Ledecky’s effort, throwing out a host of superlatives: “Unbelievable,” she said. “Fantastic . . . absolutely amazing.”
Said USA Swimming National Team Director Frank Busch, shaking his head as he left the Aquatic Center: “It’s one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever seen in the Olympics. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen.”
Spain’s Mireia Belmonte Garcia took second, 4.13 seconds behind Ledecky, who savored the stunner with a mix of smiles and shrugs.
“I knew if I put my mind to it, I could do it,” Ledecky said. “I wasn’t intimidated at all.”
Busch said he watched the race unfold with pure awe. As the crowd filled the building with chants of “Becky! Becky!” for Adlington, the country’s longtime swimming darling, Ledecky took the lead from the beginning and never wavered. She swam under world-record pace until she slipped behind in the final 50 meters, falling just 0.53 of a second short of Adlington’s record from the 2008 Summer Games.
“That’s a young lady that just showed resolve,” Busch said. “[She seemed to be saying] ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but if somebody is going to go with me, I’m going to make you hurt.’ Nobody could go with her. This is a young lady just determined to win.”
Said Donna de Varona, the 1964 Olympic champion who watched from the stands: “It’s the innocence of youth . . . [and] the ambition of youth.”
The time was more than five seconds faster than Ledecky swam at the U.S. Olympic trials in July and about 20 seconds faster than a year ago.
“I couldn’t have gone any harder,” Adlington said. “I couldn’t have gone any faster.”
Before the race, Michael Phelps, who won the gold medal in the 100 butterfly earlier that night, sought out Ledecky to wish her luck. She recalled her first meeting with Phelps — when she was 6 years old.
She had approached him after a meet at the University of Maryland as he walked to his car, listening to music through headphones. It was a year before he would win six gold medals at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.
She asked him for his autograph. He had no clue who this little girl was, or what she would become. He learned Friday.
“It looked like she went out, had some fun, won a gold medal and just missed a world record,” Phelps said. “That’s a pretty good performance for a 15-year-old.”