W 1500m Fr – Tears Of Joy & Relief As Katie Ledecky Punches Pioneering Mind-Over-Matter Gold In Gender-Parity Party In The Pool

2021-07-28 Reading Time: 5 minutes
Katie Ledecky sheds tears of joy and relief after entering the history books as the first 1500m free champion - by Patrick B. Kraemer

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Women’s 1500m freestyle: Men got going in 1896, women in 1912, and in all that time, there has been no gender parity in the program in the Olympic pool but today there was as Katie Ledecky produced one of the toughest mind-over-matter victories in the inaugural 30-length freestyle for women.

Ledecky, 24 and nine years beyond the first of her now six Olympic gold medals, led a 1-2 punch from the United States in 15:37.34, the 12th fastest of her career but swifter than any other woman has ever raced. Ledecky will now face Ariarne Titmus, the Australian who deprived her of the 200m and 400m crowns, in an 800m battle that will also be decisive to history: Ledecky wins, she becomes the fourth member of the Triple Crown Club; Titmus wins, she becomes the first Australian woman since Shane Gould to claim three solo golds at one Games and the first ever to win three golds on freestyle.

Gould has two World records no-one has matched (before or) since Munich 1972: with three golds (200, 400m free and 200m medley, all in World records) a silver (800m) and a bronze (100m), Gould is the only woman ever to win a medal in all distances from 100 to 800m and the only woman ever to claimed five solo medals at a single Games.

There was no 1500m in her day but in what would be the last season of her elite swim career after the Munich Games, Gould clocked the last of her 10 World freestyle records *11 in all with the 200m medley) when she became the first woman inside 17 minutes over 30 laps. The time was 16:56.9, set in Adelaide on February 11, 1973.

We’ll never know what might have happened next to Gould and swim speed but we do know she left in the nick of time: the GDR era became that summer at the inaugural World Championships and 16 years of abuse, domination through doping and the theft of status for generations had women’s swimming in its grip.

Today in Tokyo, Ledecky parked the challenges of the 400m and a fifth place in the 200m in the same session as the 1500m final (a case of so many freestyle events leaving schedulers with nowhere to go), took charge from the get-go raced smart and far enough ahead of the pack to ensure that the tangible fatigue in her as she sped home to history never put gold in doubt.

Sarah Kohler on her way to bronze in the inaugural 1500m free final – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Erica Sullivan, 21, delivered the first gold-silver finish for the USA women this week in 15:41.41, a personal best 5 seconds inside the bar she set in heats, which was 5 seconds inside the best time she clocked at Olympic trials in Omaha last month.

Germany’s Sarah Kohler took bronze in 15:42.91, an encouragement to finance Florian Wellbrock, who takes on the first of three shots at the podium tomorrow morning in the 800m free final for men, also an inaugural event here in Tokyo, with the 1500m free on the last morning of finals and the marathon four days later providing the Gwangju 2019 World champion in both those longest of Olympic events with his best chances of gold here in Tokyo.

The Hot Favourite For The 1500m

Worth shouting about … Katie Ledecky – the first Olympic 1500m freestyle champion in history – by Patrick B. Kraemer

With five Olympic golds, four of them in solo events, heading into the race and a record 15 World titles on freestyle, including three over 400m, four over 800m and three over 1500m, with the 2015 200m title in the mix at a championships that made her the first woman to claim all crowns from 200 to 1500m, ever and at a single showcase, Ledecky entered the 30-length fray as one of the outstanding favourites for gold in any event, all sports, at the 2020 Games in 2021.

Off her best form and having suffered two title losses, Ledecky looked unlikely to be able to dominate in the way we’ve come to expect in previous years. Even so, what she graced the sport with was shy of the vintage in terms of speed but a very fine year indeed when it came to guts, standing up under duress and providing a winning performance at the tail end of a decade of delivering time and time and time again.

The outer-orbit World record of 15:20.48 was never in danger, Ledecky travelling through the 1500m at a pace a second per 100 or so off her best but such is the margin. And at that speed. Ledecky held sway the whole way. If the physical achievement was impressive, the mental strength on display was, to use a word much over-used by Americans, “awesome”. Her every move watched in the context of her status as “superhero swimmer supreme”, Ledecky emerged from the fight to provide her perspective of what that kind of scrutiny feels like:

“We’re (Olympians) at the highest level and the most eyes on us of anyone in the world. Everyone around the world is watching. The cameras follow you around and I have experienced that on days like today. Every move you make is watched and judged, and as much as we say we ignore it, I think we try to keep a positive mindset and move forward.”

Katie Ledecky – pensive after the heats of the 1500m free … by Patrick B. Kraemer

In similar fashion to other outstanding pace-setters of the sport through history including the like of Michael Phelps, multi-strokes, and Adam Peaty on breaststroke, Ledecky has spend the past decade raising the bar for all women in the sport, Titmus’ outstanding efforts, as the Australian herself noted this week, a reflection of the standard set by the American and the determination, dedication and discipline required to put herself in a position as the only swimmer here in Tokyo capable of toppling a giant of the sport. There is a compliment in defeat and we’ve seen that being paid nowhere more obviously – and far more so than any talk of ‘price being paid’ – in the Ledecky-Titmus match this week, an 800m battle to come.

The ability to park a result and move to the next challenge is one of the most significant factors in a sport among those who have several goals in their championship/Games week. Ledecky is a champion of the art. After 1500m pioneering was in the vault, she explained what the process feels like:

Katie Ledecky

“After that tough 200 free, I was warming down and went blank for a little bit. I tried to find some positive things to get me moving forward. The easiest thing for me is to think of my grandmothers. We lost my two grandfathers. I really love them all and it makes me happy to think about them. They are four of the toughest people I know and if I thought about them during the race, I knew I would have the power I needed to get through the race.”

Katie Ledecky – writing new lines in longevity and sustainable success – by Patrick B. Kraemer

For her part, Sullivan was home from home: her mother is a Japanese citizen and Sullivan speaks the language fluently. To get it as right as she did a t the right time and right place meant much. She said:

Erica Sullivan of the United States of America (USA) walks out after competing in the women’s 1500m Freestyle Heats during the Swimming events of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, Japan, 26 July 2021.

“I’ve just had far too many races where I’ve gone out too recklessly and I’ve really felt tight in the last 500, which is so unlike me because even in the training pool, I don’t go out fast. I finish strong.. Before the race, Coach Ron (Aitken), made it clear to me: ‘Hey, stay in control, stay relaxed, and trust your training.’ I said that to myself and I held on to hope the whole way.”

Erica Sullivan – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Result in full

  1. Katie Ledecky USA 15:37.34
  2. Erica Sullivan USA 15:41.41
  3. Sarah Kohler GER 15:42.91
  4. Wang Jianjiahe CHN 15:46.37
  5. Simona Quadarella ITA 15:53.97
  6. Kiah Melverton AUS 16:00.36
  7. Anastasiia Kirpichnikova Team Tchaikovsky 16:00.38
  8. Maddy Gough AUS 16:05.81
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