RIO DE JANEIRO — Leah Smith trains with 19-year-old American swimming sensation Katie Ledecky at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club in Bethesda, Maryland, so she knows what to expect when she and Ledecky go racing. But it has to help, too, that Smith has a grounded sense of humor about the freakishly large margins of victory that Ledecky keeps posting — as Ledecky did again in their 400-meter freestyle final Sunday night at the Rio Summer Olympics.
When Ledecky was still a blistering 1.19 seconds under her own world record at the halfway point of the race, Smith said she wasn’t tempted to steal a look because the roar of crowd seemed to grow louder with every lap. And Smith knew it could only mean one thing.
“When she does that, part of you is in awe and part of you is trying like crazy to catch up to her,” Smith said of Ledecky with a laugh. “I knew she was going to win. … But when I saw her take off with 150 meters to go, I knew she was onto something special. It’s kind of fun because you hear the crowd going insane and you try to pretend it’s for you, even though you know it’s for Katie.”
Ledecky shattered her previous world mark in the 400 free by 1.91 seconds, finishing Sunday’s final in 3:56.46 — a time threshold that meant a lot for her because she had been chasing it (not just her previous world record of 3:58.37) for a couple of years now. Bruce Gemmel, the coach who has helped build her astonishing range at distances from the 100 to 1,500 meters, hung 3:56 out there for her a while ago, and it was one of the few things Ledecky hasn’t done.
British silver medalist Jazz Carlin finished 4.77 seconds behind Ledecky in 4:01.23, and Smith took the bronze in 4:01.92.
All told, the U.S. grabbed five medals Sunday on a terrific night of swimming in which four world records were broken at the Olympics Aquatics Centre.
Cody King took a bronze in the 100-meter breaststroke that Britain’s Andy Peaty won in world-record time, American Dana Vollmer’s comeback was rewarded with a bronze in the 100 butterfly in which Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom broke the world record, and the American men’s 4×100-meter relay pulled off an emotional win against France and Australia in world-record time, giving Michael Phelps his 19th career gold medal.
“It was a great night for Team USA,” Ledecky said. “We’re rolling and excited for the rest of the week.”
Ledecky is among the believers that success can be contagious for a swim team when it gets to a big event like this. She was only 15 when she won a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle at the London Games four years ago, and she spent most of her time cheering for the rest of the team because her final wasn’t until the seventh day of the eight-day meet.
Here in Rio, Ledecky said, the U.S. swimmers tried to get the team spirit going early by deciding to ring a cowbell every time one of its swimmers leaves their gathering spot in the warm-up pool to go to the starting blocks to race. Ledecky admits the bell is an acquired taste.
“I think it’s annoying some other teams,” she said, breaking into a grin, “but we have a really great team atmosphere.”
No wonder. Phelps’ meet is off to a strong start. With her win, Ledecky remains a legitimate contender to win six medals in all six of her events in Rio. She’s living up to her renown as arguably the most dominant athlete in the world.
On Saturday, she won a silver anchoring the 4×100 freestyle relay, an unexpected honor that admittedly left her “shaking” as she waited to dive in for the final leg. She still has the 200 free and 800 free to go, plus two relays. (She’s also the current world-record holder in the 800 and 1,500, which isn’t contested at the Olympics)
So far, so good.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Ledecky said.