Katie Ledecky’s Unlikely New Role: Underdog?

TOKYO — For nearly a decade, Katie Ledecky has lived a mostly blessed athletic existence.

As a painfully shy 15-year-old, she upset a defending gold medalist and world-record holder to win her first Olympic title at the 2012 London Games. She has had barely a slip since.

Her domination is so routine that her surname has become a verb, synonymous with crushing the competition. And she has ledeckied away in her specialties — distance swims longer than 400 meters — rarely facing a true challenger and certainly nothing resembling a rival.

Now, she has one.

Ariarne Titmus of Australia, a fearless Tasmanian who talks big and has the speed in the pool to back it up, is about to ask Ledecky the one question she has never had to answer in her two previous Olympic appearances: How will she respond to a swimmer who has placed a target on her back and taken dead aim at it?

“I’m sure she is going to be fast, and I’m sure she thinks the same of me,” Ledecky, 24, said of Titmus when she was asked about her in a pre-Olympic news conference this month from the U.S. team’s camp in Hawaii.

How fast is Titmus? Lately, when it has counted most, she has been a good bit faster than Ledecky at both 200 and 400 meters, races that Ledecky swept four years ago.

At Australia’s Olympic trials last month, Titmus, 20, missed breaking Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46 in the 400 by just a half-second. At the U.S. trials, also in June, Ledecky swam the distance in 4:01.27.

In the 200, Titmus came within 0.11 seconds of the record, which was set in 2009, back when swimmers wore sleek suits that reduced drag and are now banned. Ledecky swam the 200 freestyle at the U.S. trials in 1:55.11, more than two seconds behind the world record.

Aside from her times, Titmus’s comments after the trials rocketed across the swimming world.

“She’s not going to have it all her own way,” Titmus said of Ledecky, after her 400 race.

Of course, the Australians have succumbed to irrational exuberance before.

They won 20 swimming medals at the 2008 Beijing Games but managed only 10 in both 2012 and 2016, despite much hype about their prospects. Americans won 31 swimming medals in London 2012 and topped that with 33 four years later.

To try to narrow the gap, Australia moved its trials to coincide with the United States’ in mid-June, so their best swimmers keep momentum between selection and the Olympic competition.

Titmus beat Ledecky in the 400 meters at the swimming world championships in 2019. It was the first time Ledecky had lost a distance race at a major meet. She was sick during the competition and did not compete in the 200 meters. Then again, Titmus is now two years older, stronger and way faster; but to many, Ledecky still has the edge.

“I would not want to be the favorite with someone like Katie as the underdog,” said Dave Marsh, a top American coach who is working with the Israeli team in Tokyo. “She is a beautiful person and one of the nicest young ladies I have ever met, but she is fierce in the water.”

There are plenty of stories about Ledecky pushing male swimmers to their limits in training and setting a standard for the women that is nearly impossible to match. She also remains the strong favorite at 800 and 1,500 meters, which may be the closest to an automatic win for any athlete in any sport in Tokyo. That is how far ahead of the competition she is in the longest distance events in the pool.

But as the defending Olympic champion at both 200 and 400 meters, no one expects her to cede her titles without a fight.

As a swimmer, Ledecky has all the physical gifts. She is 6 feet tall and a wiry but muscular 160 pounds, and she has magical flexibility that allows her legs and torso to generate tremendous power in addition to her arms.

Her “underwaters” — dolphin kicks and rippling body coming out of a turn — are actually faster than the freestyle stroke itself, which is why swimmers cannot use the maneuvers for more than 15 meters after pushing off the wall. They have still given her a huge advantage.

But Ledecky’s greatest gift may be how she actually enjoys the unique drudgery of training to swim long, all those thousands of meters every week spent face down and staring at a black line. Michael Phelps, in contrast, has never been shy about talking about his misery during training sessions that can sometimes seem never-ending.

Ledecky even said she was in her happy place at the U.S. team’s pre-Olympic camp in Hawaii, churning through her grueling workouts, which usually take place at Stanford University, from which she graduated this year.

“I feel very lucky to love this sport as much as I do,” she said. “I love training.”

Whether it will be enough to hold off Titmus and how she responds when she has a competitor breathing down her neck, or even ahead of her, in events she has historically owned remain to be seen.

For Ledecky, anything but a gold medal sweep from 200 to 1500 meters will be seen as coming up short. She fell in love with the brutal 1,500-meter race — which is making its Olympic debut for women — when she was 12 years old.

Titmus, on the other hand, has little to lose: There is no shame in losing against the world’s greatest female swimmer. She is coached by Dean Boxall, a fiery South African known for his flowing hair and his brash energy on the pool deck.

Boxall has Titmus feeling every bit the equal of her American rivals. As she told The Sydney Morning Herald last month, “I feel like the Olympics is not going to be all America’s way.”