RIO DE JANEIRO — To swim the anchor leg of the women’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay Saturday night in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the U.S. coaching staff could have chosen from among some of the most experienced, accomplished sprinters at its disposal — veteran swimmers with Olympic medals and world championship golds at 100 meters, youngsters with top-10 world rankings in the sprints.
But the Americans’ needed a miracle, so they went with Katie Ledecky.
The miracle never came, as even Ledecky, the most dominant female swimmer in the world, was no match for the Australian speedboat in the lane next to her. Cate Campbell, the world record holder at 100 meters, held off Ledecky’s furious charge, securing the gold medal for the heavily favored Aussies, in a world record time of 3:30.65. The United States, meanwhile, settled for an American record (3:31.89) and the silver medal — its third of the night — and even that may not have been possible without Ledecky’s efforts.
The United States led at the halfway point, following solid 100s from Simone Manuel (53.36) and Abbey Weitzeil (52.56), but the Campbell sisters of Australia, Bronte (52.15) and Cate (51.97), ranked second and first in the world this year, outpaced American veteran Dana Vollmer (53.18) and Ledecky (52.79). Canada earned the bronze medal.
“We couldn’t be happier with our silver record and American record,” Ledecky said.
It mattered little that the second-place finish marred Ledecky’s previously unblemished record — 15 starts, 15 golds — in individual and relay finals in major international competitions. The Australians, boasting three of the top four women in the world at 100 meters, were near-locks to win gold all along. Even a cloned Ledecky swimming all four legs Saturday night would have had a difficult time catching them.
In the bigger picture, however, Ledecky’s two blistering swims in the 4x100 free relay Saturday — an event she had never before swum at the international level — told us something else: We may have to recalibrate what is possible for her here this week and raise expectations beyond their already maxed-out levels.
Before clocking a split of 52.64 as the U.S. anchor leg in the afternoon preliminary heat, the fourth-fastest ever recorded by a female U.S. swimmer in an international relay, Ledecky was seen as something of an interloper at this distance — someone who would do no harm to the U.S. team’s chances in the relay but who likely would swim a moderately fast time in the prelim, then fade out as a quartet of more accomplished American sprinters took it from there. She couldn’t even remember the last time she swam a 4x100 free relay — probably in high school, she said, or maybe in a small club-team meet.
Instead, after a swim like the one she uncorked in Saturday afternoon’s prelim, the U.S. coaching staff had little choice but to insert Ledecky, the seventh-place finisher in the 100 free at the Olympic trials six weeks earlier, into the lineup for the evening final. And somebody had to go up against Campbell in the anchor leg — might as well be the most intimidating swimmer and most relentless closer on the U.S. roster.
“She’s Katie Ledecky,” U.S. women’s head coach David Marsh said between sessions. “She’s not Superwoman, but she’s pretty darned super.”
Her performances Saturday left only one reasonable conclusion: Ledecky, much as she did in 2012, when her only event was the 800-meter freestyle, had gotten considerably faster between June’s Olympic trials and this month’s Olympics. The evidence is clear: She ranks just 17th in the world and fifth among Americans in the 100 free, but in the afternoon prelims, she managed to out-split not only her three U.S. teammates, all of them accomplished sprinters, but all but two of the women in the field.
In just six weeks, she has gone from that seventh-place finish in the 100 free at the trials — requiring some political maneuvering on the part of the coaching staff just to gain a relay spot — to swimming the anchor leg in both races of the 4x100 free relay at the Olympics.
“I had no doubt when they put her on [the relay] in prelims that she was going to bust out something amazing,” Vollmer said. “She’s an absolute fighter. It was her first [Olympic] relay, and I had no fear with her being our anchor.”
Ledecky’s surge between June and August can be explained in part by her training. Unlike other swimmers who need to be in peak form for the trials just to make the Olympic team, Ledecky, by virtue of her sheer worldwide dominance at 400 and 800 meters, had the luxury of saving her “taper” — the period of reduced workload a swimmer undergoes heading into a major meet — until Rio.
“The goal,” said her coach, Bruce Gemmell, “was for her to swim her fastest in Rio.”
But people close to her think there is another factor at play: Ledecky seems to be transformed by being around a team atmosphere, perhaps because it is such a refreshing change from the inherently lonely nature of a distance swimmer’s training regimen, which, in Ledecky’s case, typically involves around 70,000 meters per week. She revels in the camaraderie, thrives from the daily duels during training, takes to heart the veteran status — despite being the youngest on the team for the second straight Olympics — that she has earned as a 2012 Olympian.
“It made it so much more fun to have a relay as the first event,” said Ledecky, who had to wait until the sixth day of the meet in 2012 to swim her first and only event, the 800 free. “It’s more pressure [than an individual swim] in that you want to compete for your team and compete for the people who swam in prelims.”
On Sunday, Ledecky swims her first individual event here, with the prelims and final of the 400 free, as she seeks to become the first woman since Debbie Meyer in 1968 to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 frees in a single Olympics. An additional gold could await her in the 4x200 free relay, in which she likely will swim the anchor leg in the final. Four wins would make her only the third American female swimmer, after Amy Van Dyken (1996) and Missy Franklin (2012), to win four golds in a single Olympics.
Saturday, then, could have served as a useful tuneup for the core of Ledecky’s Olympic program. Instead, it was something bigger — a statement, a warning shot. She may not have won Saturday night, for the first time in forever, but she looks as hungry, as dialed-in and as flat-out fast as she ever has in her career, and beginning Sunday the Olympics move into territory she owns.