Olympic swimming is oppressively hard, just as Olympic gymnastics and all other Olympic sports are, and in the roughly 70 minutes Ledecky was afforded between her unprecedented double finals in the 200-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle, she had to wrap her mind around the first finals race in her international career in which she was shut out of the medal stand.
Perhaps that made her gold medal in the 1,500 free — the sixth of her career but first of these Tokyo Olympics — that much sweeter. Those things aren’t handed out like candy, despite the fantasy that Ledecky and a few others in her rarefied company may have scripted over the years. On Wednesday, she gruelingly earned it.
After finishing a disappointing fifth in the 200 free final in a time of 1 minute 55.21 seconds — the gold going to Australian freestyle phenom Ariarne Titmus (1:53.50), silver to Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong (1:53.92), bronze to Canada’s Penny Oleksiak (1:54.70) — Ledecky returned to the starting blocks at Tokyo Aquatics Centre and took her disappointment out on the water in Lane 4.
When she touched the wall at the end of the 1,500, her gold medal secured with a time of 15:37.34 — with American teammate Erica Sullivan second, at 15:41.41 — Ledecky sobbed as she hung on the lane line, barely able to pick herself up and make her way out of the pool. She looked exhausted, spent.
“It means a lot,” she said of the gold medal she added to the collection, to go with the four from Rio de Janeiro 2016 and the one from London 2012. “People maybe feel bad that I’m not winning everything, but I want people to be more concerned about other things in the world. People are truly suffering. I’m just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA.”
The 200 result was a shocker in that Ledecky, while a decided underdog to Titmus, was expected to press her Australian rival to the last wall. Instead, she never quite fired, turning at the halfway point in fifth place and never summoning a finishing kick. Her final 50 split of 29.66 was more than a half-second off the 29.12 she closed with in the 400 two nights earlier, when she took the silver behind Titmus’s gold.
It was the 36th final (individual races plus relays) of Ledecky’s international championship career — counting world championships, Pan-Pacific championships and Olympics — and it was the first time she did not earn a medal. Her time was slower than the one she posted at Olympic trials a month earlier (1:55.11), and slower than what she posted at a TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Mission Viejo, Calif. in April (1:54.40). It was also about a second and a half off her winning time in Rio 2016 (1:53.73).
In 2016, when she swam the 200, she didn’t have the added stress of the 1,500 on the same day. The demands of the double certainly complicated the picture, forcing Ledecky to script her minutes between races carefully. In her mind, she figured there would be a medal ceremony for the 200 in between, which would have eaten up precious minutes of rest and cut short her warm-down session. When she didn’t make the podium, she found a positive in it: extra time for resting and warming down ahead of the 1,500.
“Let it sit for a second. Be angry about it if you want. Let it fuel you for the 1,500,” her coach, Greg Meehan told her after the 200, according to Ledecky. “He said, ‘Stay positive, almost forget that race happened,’ and just treat the 1,500 like that was my only race tonight.”
Swimming easy 50s in the warm-up pool, Ledecky went to her happy place, which is to think about her four grandparents, Jerry and Berta Ledecky and Bud and Kathleen Hagan, whom she regards as “the toughest people I know.”
“It makes me really happy to think about them,” she said. “I knew if I was thinking about them during the [1,500] I wasn’t going to [run out of energy]. I wasn’t going to have a bad swim. That would power me through.”
The 1,500 seemed specially made for Ledecky — added to the Olympic program this year, after previously being a men-only event, largely because Ledecky had made it essential viewing at world championships over the years. In the prelims, where she paced the field by six seconds, her mark was also, by default, an Olympic record.
Wednesday’s final of the 1,500 brought the familiar (if still disorienting) image of Ledecky nearly lapping opponents, swimming east when they were going west. The 800 and 1,500 are races Ledecky completely reinvented, attacking them with a sprinter’s mentality, but the world is catching up. Her two most recent world championships in the 1,500, in 2015 and 2017, came by a combined 34 seconds. On Wednesday, she won by a little more than four.
But when she touched the wall at the end of lap number 30, the margin or her time — her fastest in more than a year but some 15 seconds off her 2018 world record — hardly mattered. She waited those four seconds for Sullivan to finish in the lane next to her, slapped the water in joy for both of them, then doubled over with emotion.
“I approach every single race with the attitude that anything can happen, that I can break a world record in this race,” she said. "… That’s the kind of pressure I put on myself: when I step behind the blocks that I can do something special. It’s a real blessing and a curse [to] have that attitude. It’s served me well over the years. It’s why I’ve broken so many world records and swum so many fast times.
“It’s also a really hard attitude to maintain for nine years. I’ve gained perspective over the years. The times may not be my best times, but I’m still really, really happy to have a gold medal around my neck right now.”
Ledecky is proud of the silver medal she won in Monday’s 400 free — “Just because I’ve won golds all the time doesn’t mean that silver doesn’t mean something to me,” she said — but she also acknowledged how much Wednesday’s gold meant to her. She spoke of the “power of the gold medal,” and choked up as she described wearing hers during visits to children’s hospitals and Wounded Warriors in past years.
“Their faces light up when they see the gold medals, and that means more to me than anything — the ability to put a smile on someone’s face,” she said. “And I just really wanted to get a gold medal to have that opportunity again.”
Mental health is having a much-welcomed moment in the discourse around elite athletics, sparked most vividly by U.S. gymnast Simone Biles’s withdrawal from the team competition Tuesday night. In swimming, two of the top Olympians in history, Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin, have spoken eloquently about their struggles.
Swimmers get no escape from the pressures, if only because you are defined by the cold, hard numbers on the scoreboard: You are what the clock says you are. In swimmer shorthand, sometimes they say, “She goes a 58” — translation: Her best time in some-or-other race is 58 seconds — but sometimes they’ll simply say, “She’s a 58.” Her time is her identity.
Ledecky has certainly known the Tyranny of Times. For the past four-plus years, she has struggled to match her times from Rio, two of which — the 400 free and 800 free — were world records. She tried to tune out the noise, but sometimes it would sneak past her defenses. She knew people questioned whether, now in her mid-20s, she could still match the times she went at 19.
“My past performances — that puts pressure on myself,” she said. “It’s hard when your times are world records in some events and you can’t just keep dropping time every single swim.”
Like everyone else, Ledecky has had a tough year. She suffered through the pandemic, isolated clear across the country from her close-knit family, barred from her regular practice pool, reduced to training in the backyard pool of a friend of a friend for a time. She has said little about how dark things got, but it was clear the extra stresses took their toll, and equally clear a return to some semblance of normalcy in her training helped her mental state.
“It’s a true privilege to be at an Olympics, let alone an Olympics in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “So many people around the world are going through a lot of hard things. Yeah, I’m just lucky to be here.”
By the end of Wednesday morning’s session, Ledecky’s odometer at this Olympics sat at a staggering 4,400 meters of racing — more than any woman has ever tackled at a single Olympics, if only because none before this included the grueling 1,500 free — and she still has at least 1,800 to go, including relays.
Not a single one of those 1,800 will be easy, and none of the results should be taken for granted.