Katy Ledecki had just over an hour to recover from the biggest disappointment of her legendary Olympic career – a stunning fifth in the 200 freestyle.
Few expected her to win this race, even though she was the reigning champion and not with Ariarne Titmus of Australia on the next lane as she was in the 400 freestyle on Monday when she beat Ledecky for gold. But fifth place is not where Ledecki, who came in with five gold medals, ever expected.
She stared blankly at the scoreboard after touching the wall. She shuddered as she walked across the pool deck. There will be no medal ceremony before the start of her next competition, the 1500m freestyle.
Ever since the Olympic schedule was published many years ago, it was the day she circled, the day she attempted a double, winning two very different races.
It will be a similar day to Michael Phelps in 2008, when he won the 200m butterfly and relay gold in the same session. Now things were going in the wrong direction, which shocked her competitors.
“I always thought she would be there,” Titmus said of the 200 meters that gave her her second gold medal in three days.
Instead, Ledecky headed for the heated pool. She consulted with her coach Greg Meehan. He told her to get angry if she wanted to, but at least she had more time to get ready for the metric mile swim.
She said she always planned to use the adrenaline from her 200 performance to help her get through the 1500, the longest pool race and grueling physical and mental challenges.
“Things didn’t go so well there,” she said.
Swimming in the warm-up pool, she thought about her family, especially her grandparents, the coolest people she knew. And she tried to figure out the next task.
Then, shortly before noon, she entered the water at 1500, and after about a minute or two, order in the swimming universe was restored.
Ledecky, an absolute fan of distance, has grown to love the 1500 since she first raced distance when she was 12 and has been nearly impossible to beat ever since.
Ledecki overtook the Chinese Jianjiahe Wang by 200 meters and five at around 300 meters. Doing every other stroke, barely kicking, and increasing the lead at every turn, she cruised through most of the remainder of the race.
Erica Sullivan, her American partner, nudged her at the end, approaching Ledecky by seven meters. But even Sullivan knew how it would end.
“I saw her wake up,” said Sullivan, who won the silver medal. “Usually I just see her in the bends.”
When she touched the wall, Ledecky hit the water and screamed.
It was her second medal in the games after the silver in the 400 meters, but her first gold, a medal she expects to take home. She grabbed Sullivan, who was unaware that she had grabbed the silver, an important moment in a Tokyo pool for a woman whose mother is Japanese. Usually steely, Ledecky came close to crying – they flowed at press conferences after the race – yet another superstar athlete at these games tried to cope with the pressure of excessive expectations.
Naomi Osaka of Japan and Simone Biles were claiming this pressure on Tuesday. At the Tokyo Games on Wednesday, Ledecki was tested in a way she hadn’t done before, and she passed that test.
“People may wish I was winning everything, but I want people to be more worried about other things happening in the world,” she said. “The strongest pressure that I feel is the pressure that I put on myself.”