It must be a maddening thing to be an Olympic athlete who is placed in the unique and unenviable position of training for an event that is thoroughly dominated by one singular competitor. Such was reality for Ariarne Titmus, the 20-year-old Australian swimmer who was handed the misfortune of specializing in several events that have been dominated by American swimmer Katie Ledecky. All those years of training, all those practice laps and splits and personal bests, would never add up to anything more than silver for Titmus unless she could be faster than one of the best swimmers to ever get into a pool.
Beating Ledecky is the goal Titmus has been working toward since making her senior international debut in 2016. “Goal” is probably a word that doesn’t really accurately describe such a task. People who write, “Make the bed every morning!” on a sticky note attached to their bathroom mirror have goals. People who set out to defeat a swimmer who has never come away with anything less than gold in an individual Olympic event, and who collected all of those golds while smashing world records and touching the final wall without a single opponent anywhere near her, are after something much bigger.
Last night, Titmus got what she was after. Facing off against Ledecky in the 400-meter freestyle, Titmus tracked her down in the final 50 meters to claim the gold medal:
This was actually the second time that Titmus had bested Ledecky in the 400, but the first time she had done so without leaving any room for doubt. Titmus beat Ledecky at the 2019 World Championships in very similar fashion, but Ledecky competed in that race while dealing with an illness that had forced her to withdraw from two other races at that year’s competition. But there would be no potential excuses headed into last night’s showdown; Ledecky was healthy and even posted a time that was a full second faster than Titmus’s in their preliminary heats. If Titmus was going to beat Ledecky, she was going to have to beat a much more formidable swimmer than the one she encountered in 2019.
And that’s exactly what Titmus did. Ledecky finished the 400 final in 3:57.36, a full two seconds faster than the time she posted at the World Championships. That was the second-fastest time Ledecky has ever posted in the 400, falling just short of the 03:56.46 world record she set at the 2016 Olympics. But Titmus was up to the challenge, closing down Ledecky late in the race and finishing in 3:56.69, just short of breaking the world record herself.
So all you can say now is that Titmus is one of the best to ever do it in the 400-meter freestyle. She beat a possibly diminished version of Ledecky in 2019, and then got even stronger and faster to take down Peak Ledecky just two years later. If the magnitude of this achievement isn’t really setting in for you, just go back and watch Ledecky’s record-setting race at the 2016 Olympics. Look at how far away the rest of the field was from her as she finished that race, and imagine how impossible it must have seemed, to Titmus and every other swimmer in the world, that anyone would ever be able to dethrone Ledecky in that moment.
Titmus has said many times that she would not be the kind of swimmer she is if not for Ledecky, and she reiterated that last night. When asked what she said to Ledecky in the pool after the race, she responded, “I just thanked her.” Titmus went on: “I wouldn’t be here without her. She’s set this standard for middle-distance freestyle. If I didn’t have someone like her to chase, I definitely wouldn’t be swimming the way I am.”
That’s the fun of the Olympics, isn’t it? The chase. Gold standards are set and reset every cycle, and every record that gets broken is a question posed to everyone else who has ever dreamed of wearing a gold medal: Is this the best there will ever be? Or can you be better? It’s how these questions get answered, by people like Titmus, that keep the games relevant. As fun as it has been to watch Ledecky win every gold available to her and almost literally lap the competition, it’s more fun to watch her battle against a worthy rival. Titmus and Ledecky will meet again in the 200-meter freestyle, 800-meter freestyle, and the team relay. Those races are going to kick ass.