Since bursting onto the world swimming scene in 2012, Katie Ledecky has been nearly unstoppable.
Her 20 combined Olympic and world championship gold medals are the most by a woman swimmer. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, she swept through the three distance freestyle events. Her times in the 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle are all world records.
But while American swimmers have come to find Ledecky a comfortable source of gold medals in the past, things won’t be quite as easy this year. Australian star Ariarne Titmus has become a real challenge to Ledecky’s throne in several distance events.
While Ledecky has the 1,500 all but wrapped up in the race’s first year in Olympic women’s competition, the 200 and 400 figure to be major battles between the American and the Australian.
Here’s all you need to know about Titmus and the threat she poses to Ledecky in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
How old is Ariarne Titmus?
Ledecky won gold in the 800 freestyle in the 2012 London Olympics as a 15-year-old, and she has been the most dominant women’s swimmer in the world ever since.
Now 24, Ledecky will be the one racing young up-and-comers. Titmus is 20 and competing in her first Olympics. (Canadian 14-year-old Summer McIntosh is also in the final). Her first world championship event came in the 2017 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Budapest when she was part of Australia’s bronze-winning 4×200 freestyle relay. She didn’t claim international gold until the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where she won in the 400 and 800 freestyle and the 4×200 freestyle relay. She won silver in the 200 freestyle.
She has been rising ever since. Titmus had a strong showing in the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, in particular one of her races against Ledecky.
Titmus vs. Ledecky head-to-head
As previously noted, Ledecky has been nearly unstoppable in the distance freestyle races. The word “nearly” is important, because she has, in fact, been stunned on the world stage in one of her signature races.
At the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, Ledecky established that she was the favorite in the 400 freestyle by swimming a 4:01.84 heat to lead the field. But those paying attention noticed that Titmus was just a fraction of a second behind her at 4:02.42.
Then came the final, and it happened: Titmus won gold. And this wasn’t just a win by a reach to the wall — Ledecky would have had the edge there at 6-0 to Titmus’ 5-10. Instead, Titmus won by more than a second. She earned gold with a time of 3:58.76 while Ledecky earned silver with a time of 3:59.97.
Ledecky was sick during the meet and that kept her from racing the 200 freestyle, but Titmus’ win was convincing and put her firmly on the world swimming map.
They met head-to-head one other time at the 2019 world championships, in the 800 freestyle. After finishing second in the heats behind American teammate Leah Smith, Ledecky won gold with a time of 8:13.58 and Titmus earned bronze at 8:15.70. Italy’s Simona Quadarella was second at 8:14.99.
Earlier matchups between the two went Ledecky’s way. In the 2018 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, Ledecky placed ahead of Titmus in the 400 and 800 freestyle.
When will they race in the 2021 Tokyo Games?
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Ledecky will leave Tokyo with gold medals. The question will be how many times Titmus finishes ahead of her.
Titmus and Ledecky will face off in three individual events — the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle — and the 4×200 freestyle relay.
The 400 freestyle final is Sunday night in the U.S. Titmus will enter the race as the likely favorite with her entry time of 3:56.90 nearly three seconds faster than Ledecky’s 3:59.25. Ledecky is still the world record-holder in the race at 3:56.46 and was faster than Titmus in the prelims (4:00.45 to 4:01.66). But the two did not compete in the same heat, and swimming next to each other in the final will push them to go faster.
The 200 heats and semifinals will take place Monday ahead of the final on Tuesday. This is the only long-distance event in which Ledecky is not currently the world record-holder (Italy’s Federica Pellegrini holds that distinction at 1:52.98), so this is another place where Titmus could swoop in and grab the gold. Titmus enters with the top entry time of 1:53.09, while Pellegrini is second at 1:54.22 and Ledecky is third at 1:54.40.
The 800 figures to be Ledecky’s race all the way. Ledecky has proved that the longer the race, the more dominant she is. Her entry time of 8:10.70 is nearly four seconds faster than China’s Wang Jianjiahe at 8:14.64, and Titmus comes in at fourth at 8:15.57. Titmus will not race the 1,500, where Ledecky, with an entry time more than 21 seconds faster than the next closest swimmer, is also expected to crush the field.
That just leaves the 4×200 free relay. Both swimmers are expected to compete in it. Australia holds the world record at 7:41.50; it set the mark at the 2019 worlds, where Titmus led off. The United States was just behind at 7:41.87, but it has a relatively new group and the Australian swimmers joining Titmus and Emma McKeon have posted the fastest times of any relay-only swimmer.
Here’s when you can watch Ledecky and Titmus compete in the coming days.
Sunday, July 25
|Women’s 400 Freestyle Heats||7:39 a.m.||USA|
|Women’s 400 Freestyle Final||10:20 p.m.||NBC|
Monday, July 26
|Women’s 200 Freestyle Heats||6:02 a.m.||USA|
|Women’s 200 Freestyle Semifinals||9:30 p.m.||NBC|
Tuesday, July 27
|Women’s 200 Freestyle Final||9:41 p.m.||NBC|
Wednesday, July 28
|Women’s 4×200 Freestyle Relay Heats||7:34 a.m.||USA|
|Women’s 4×200 Freestyle Relay Final||11:31 p.m.||NBC|
Thursday, July 29
|Women’s 800 Freestyle Heats||6:02 a.m.||USA|
Friday, July 30
|Women’s 800 Freestyle Final||9:46 p.m.||NBC|