I blame Katie Ledecky for training me to believe that the 1500m freestyle couldn’t be exciting. The legendary American swimmer absolutely owns this event on the women’s side, holding the top 13 times ever at that distance, and on Wednesday, she proved her dominance once again, winning the longest women’s pool race in Olympic history by four whole seconds over Erica Sullivan.
On the men’s side, too, the 2012 and 2016 Olympics saw this race decided by 8.5 and 5 seconds, respectively, as the 30 lengths provided ample opportunity for the best distance swimmers to completely separate themselves from the pack. But on Saturday night on the east coast, the 21-year-old Floridian Bobby Finke brought edge-of-your-seat, last-length excitement back to the 1500, winning back a long-lost gold for the U.S. with an almost incomprehensible comeback.
With two lengths to go, nearly 14 minutes into the race, Finke was tied for silver at six tenths of a second behind the leader Florian Wellbrock. With 50 meters to go, he had even lost some ground, getting timed at seven-tenths behind the German. But then, all of a sudden, after a quarter hour of racing, Finke somehow found a brand-new gear, closing the gap seemingly effortlessly as he glided through the water and past his competitors. He ended up touching the wall a full second before any of the others, earning the American men their first gold in the event since 1984.
This 1500m performance was an eerie repeat of Finke’s 800m gold from a few days earlier, where he also came from out of nowhere to steal first place. With 50m to go as the swimmers turned for the final length in that race, Finke wasn’t even in the top three, and with 25 to go, the NBC announcers weren’t even saying his name. But again, it was like Finke just realized how little distance was left and made the decision to just go faster than everybody else. He ended up winning by 0.24 seconds.
“I honestly did not expect to win. At all,” he said after the 800. “Let alone medal.”
The gold apparently didn’t alleviate his modesty, as after taking the 1500 he still seemed blown away by how fast he was.
“I thought I was coming home a lot slower than the 800,” he told NBC after being informed of his closing times.
That should be the last-ever time Finke’s late-race speed surprises anybody.