On Tuesday night, Katie Ledecky made Olympic history when she became the first woman to win gold in the debut of the 1,500-meter freestyle race at the Games. It was a strong rebound for the swimming legend, who experienced a tough loss just an hour beforehand in the women’s 200-meter freestyle.
Ledecky, 24, who is the world record holder in the 1,500 meters, finished with a time of 15:37.34. Fellow USA teammate Erica Sullivan—a first-time Olympian—earned silver with a time of 15:41, finishing just over a second in front of third-place finisher Sarah Kohler of Germany.
Ledecky’s gold was her first win in the 2020 Games and her sixth Olympic gold overall. In Tokyo, she competed in two event finals before her 1,500-meter victory—the 200-meter freestyle earlier that evening, where she finished fifth, and the 400-meter freestyle on July 25, where she earned a silver medal. Ledecky took gold in both of those events in the 2016 Games in Rio.
As the reigning Olympic champion in both the 400-meter free and 200-meter free, Ledecky’s fifth-place finish in the latter was quite unexpected. The Associated Press reported that it’s the first time Ledecky has swam in an Olympic race and not medaled.
What wasn’t all that surprising was that it was 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus who took home the gold for both events. After all, her nickname is “The Terminator,” and she’s the current women’s 400-meter freestyle world champion and record holder, according to Swimming Australia.
“After the 200, I knew I had to turn the page very quickly,” Ledecky told the Associated Press later that evening.
That she did: Just an hour later, she jumped off the block into the pool to reclaim her spot on the podium in the most grueling swimming event on the schedule.
The women’s 1,500-meter free is the longest pool race in the Olympics. It equates to 0.93 miles, or 30 laps of the Olympic pool. While it’s a new Olympic event for women this year, it has been contested at world championships for years. And it just so happens that Ledecky claims all top-10 times in the women’s event in history, according to the New York Times. So, you can say the long-distance race is kind of her thing.
Still, the emotional and physical toll of another Olympic race just an hour earlier had to have made her speciality event feel even trickier. But there were two things that helped Ledecky refocus: a conversation with her coach and thinking about her grandparents.
The Associated Press reported that Ledecky ran into her coach, who gave her a little pep talk, after the first race. “He did a lot to help me get my mind right, to help me move on from that 200,” she said. “He just told me to kind of let it sit for a second, be angry about it if you want, let it fuel you for the 1,500. Whatever he said, it helped.”
While trying to find some positive things to focus on and help her more forward, Ledecky says she thought about her grandparents. “They’re four of the toughest people I know.”
Post-win, Ledecky also reflected on the pressure she puts on herself to swim faster each time and always beat her best—pressure that is hard to handle, but also helps her keep pushing ahead, Sports Illustrated reported.
“I’m always striving to be better than I’ve ever been, and it’s not easy when your times are world records,” she said. “I’m really tough on myself. But that’s the attitude I have—I literally approach each race with a belief that I can swim a best time, and that’s pretty darned tough.”