She thrashed her legs during those last few strokes of Tuesday night’s 200m freestyle final and Katie Ledecky’s body ached like it never had before in these Olympics. Her rival Sarah Sjöström was somewhere, either ahead or behind. She had no idea. So she kept pushing her arms her feet, her stomach until near the end she burped. And as she did she thought she would vomit in the water for all the world to see on live television.
When Ledecky finished and realized her quest to be the third woman to take gold in the 200m, 400m and 800m at the same Olympics was still alive, she was not elated. She didn’t pump her fist or shout.
“I was done when I hit the wall,” she said. “That was a really tough race … the closest I’ve come to throwing up.”
Ledecky makes winning gold look so easy it’s hard to forget the agony she puts herself through in every race. The 200m is her toughest challenge – a sprint for a body designed to outlast everybody in the longer distances. Her lust to seize those three golds extracts an excruciating price in the pool. She almost welcomes the pain It’s a symbol of accomplishment, a sign that she wasted nothing.
“It meant I had pushed as hard as I could,” she said.
She did not feel this way on Sunday night when she won the 400m freestyle with relative ease. This was a fight, a battle she wasn’t even sure she could win. After her qualifying race the day before, one in which she came in behind Sjöström, she saw on video that she had taken too many strokes. She wanted to control that pace on Tuesday. And yet once the race started she didn’t feel as if she had been perfect. Her second turn was too wide. She was tired. She was worried. She wondered just how far she might have fallen behind. But because she does not look to her right when she races she could not see Sjöström in the lane beside her.
All she could do was try to squelch the dinner that was bubbling up in her throat and pray it didn’t spill into the water.
“I’ve come pretty close in practice a few times so I’m kind of used to it ,” Ledecky said after the race. “And I know I can get through it and it’s almost like you get mad when that happens and I swim better when I get mad so I just sucked deep and knew I had only 25m left.”
Whether it was will or fury, she has taken golds in her first two Rio finals. She is now the third woman and sixth swimmer overall to win the 200m and 400m freestyle in the same Olympics. The only other females are American Debbie Meyer who did it in 1968 and Shane Gould who accomplished the feat in 1972.
The great prize is Meyer’s three golds in Mexico City – the 200m, 400m and 800m trifecta. Since the 200m is Ledecky’s worst event it’s safe to assume she has an excellent shot at the 800m. But it depends on the torture with which she has subjected her body. Will she have enough for the 800m on Thursday night? This is what she has trained these last four years to do.
She knows Meyer, and the two have spoken about her pursuit. Meyer has told her she wants her to win the three races. “I don’t want to let her down,” Ledecky said.
The irony of Ledecky’s stress is that Sjöström felt the same thing. The Swede knew she had a chance to beat Ledecky in the final and she pushed hard to catch her. At one point, she got a wave generated by Ledecky’s body and rode it a bit, finding an extra burst from her opponent. In the end it wasn’t enough, beaten by the reach of a finger. “I didn’t have anything to give the last 50m,” Sjöström said.
When the race was over, Ledecky stood in a hallway beneath the Olympic Aquatics Center and watched team-mate Michael Phelps win the 200m butterfly on a television. She was perhaps more nervous watching him than racing herself. She put her hand over her mouth, then on her head and over her mouth again. She agonized over a race she didn’t even swim. There seemed irony in this. The next great Olympic swimming champion watching America’s greatest champion celebrate in a way only both of them can.
This article was written by Les Carpenter in Rio de Janeiro, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10th August 2016 04.47 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010