TOKYO — Japan gave us Nintendo vs Sega. Game on! And Kong vs Godzilla? That was a monstrous struggle. But I’m not certain this country has ever seen a rivalry more intense than Ledecky vs. Titmus.
The most anticipated showdown of the Summer Olympics, a duel in the pool between American Katie Ledecky and Australian Ariarne Titmus, lived up to the hype. And then some.
“Surreal,” Titmus said Monday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, after winning gold in the 400 meter freestyle. “It’s the biggest thing you can do in your sporting career.”
After the two Olympic rivals looked each other in the eye and matched strokes of genius, even Titmus couldn’t quite believe she beat Ledecky to the wall in a race the American has ruled for the vast majority of a decade.
Bobbing her head above water to double-check if her official time of 3 minutes, 56.69 seconds was indeed brilliant enough to edge Ledecky at the end, a stunned Titmus mouthed the exact same two words I was thinking after witnessing a race drenched in drama from start to finish:
“Holy (bleep),” said Titmus, banging her noggin against the pool wall.
Holy bleep. Indeed.
Beginning in 2012, Ledecky had seldom been challenged, much less beaten, in the 400 free … until Titmus did the unthinkable and upset the native of Washington, D.C., at the 2019 world championships.
A swim rivalry both revolutionary and evolutionary was born. Until Titmus came along, a sharknado out of Tasmania, Ledecky didn’t really know what it was like to swim her best and finish first.
“It’s a rarity for me,” Ledecky said.
But now Ledecky and Titmus are the two biggest fish in the sea, dominating freestyle distances from 200 to 1,500 meters, often at record paces beyond the imagination of what we previously believed any woman could achieve in the pool. Their confrontations in the pool this week promise to make for some of the most compelling theater of these Games.
“I wouldn’t be here without her. She set an amazing standard,” said the 20-year-old Titmus, born four years after the American swimming icon that forced her to train harder and dream fiercer.
The 400-meter race, eight long laps in the Olympic pool, is far too grueling to sprint, but sprint is exactly what you much do to beat Titmus. So Ledecky went out fast, leading her rival by a full body length at the midway point.
Titmus, however, smelled weakness in the water. And she pounced, taking control in the final 100 meters with a finishing kick so hard it took Ledecky’s breath away.
“Not much is going through your head at that point. You’re just trying to find every little part to try to inch ahead or make a move,” Ledecky said. “I think (Titmus) probably flipped a little bit ahead going into the last 50. I saw that, knew that and tried to fight to the finish.”
Great champions are often sore losers by nature. But in the disappointment of defeat, Ledecky reacted with uncommon grace.
“It was tremendous race,” Ledecky said. “It was a thrill to be a part of it. And I’m sure it was a thrill to watch.”