There was little doubt that Katie Ledecky would touch the wall first in the 400-m freestyle. The world-record holder in the event, at this point the 19-year-old from suburban Maryland is racing against herself. Each time she dives into the water, she’s swimming to beat her own last personal best.
And that’s exactly what Ledecky did in Rio on day two of the Olympic swimming events. After the first 50 m, Ledecky started to edge ahead of her competitors; after that it was her against the clock, and against her own two-year-old world record and the Olympic record, which she set earlier in the day in the qualifying heats. After the first 100 m, she was under world-record pace and never lost it. She toyed with the seconds, slowing a little after 150 m but never giving up her blistering world-record stroke. Her final time was 3 min. 56.46 sec., enough to easily win gold — what is expected to be her first of many at these Games — and shatter her own world record by nearly two seconds.
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“After Worlds in 2015, I knew I could do better,” Ledecky said after the race. “I just let it all out. I had a lot of confidence that I was going to have a great meet, and I was really relaxed, not shaking when I was getting up on the blocks tonight.”
Only Ledecky could make it look so easy. Her closest competitor, Great Britain’s Jazz Carlin, came in nearly five seconds behind for the silver. American teammate Leah Smith earned bronze.
More than a body length ahead of the rest of the pool the entire race, Ledecky never showed she swam the anchor leg in the women’s 4 x 100-m freestyle relay just 24 hours earlier, leading the U.S. to silver behind a staunch Australian team. That was on top of two other qualifying heats. It’s unusual for a distance swimmer to be chosen for a 100-m relay leg — a distance considered a sprint — but for Ledecky, it’s just another race with a wall and a fast time at the end.
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Ledecky’s gold set a precedent for the remaining relay of the night, the men’s 4×100 m that featured Michael Phelps’ first race in Rio. The U.S. failed to final in the event at last year’s world championships, at which Phelps didn’t compete because USA Swimming kept him off the team following his DUI arrest.
With his fiancée, mother and baby son swaddled in a stars-and-stripes carrier in the stands, Phelps swam the second leg of the relay with Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Held and Nathan Adrian and led the field including reigning world champions France, in all but one turn. That makes 19 golds for Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, if you’re still counting.