RIO DE JANEIRO — Late in the Olympic 200-meter freestyle final, Katie Ledecky began to feel nausea swelling up from her stomach to her throat.
It was an inopportune moment. Ledecky had a shot to win the race that is, for her, the object that is different from all the others. The 200 is her “off” event, the one in which Ledecky wasn’t a world-record holder or a prohibitive favorite, the one in which she was swimming to win and not for a specific time goal. Five of the 10 top all-time performers in the distance were in Tuesday night’s eight-woman field.
To Ledecky’s left, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom was surfing her wave off the last turn. “I didn’t think I was going to be that close,” Sjostrom said. “I got some extra speed for free.”
Ledecky burped. The feeling passed. She drove herself to the wall.
Ledecky golden again, captures close 200 free
Katie Ledecky made it 2-for-2 in gold medals at the Rio Games, edging Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom on Tuesday night to win the 200-meter freestyle.
Social reaction to Phelps’ and Ledecky’s golds
The sports world pays respect to Michael Phelps’ and Katie Ledecky’s gold medal performances on Tuesday night.
Katie Ledecky’s achievements are often compared to those in men’s swimming. But as Kavitha Davidson writes, “Women’s sports need to be celebrated and enjoyed on their own merits.”
“Everything was hurting and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see the field in the last 50, so I just had to dig deep and do my own thing,” she said. “When I saw it for real on the scoreboard, it all kind of sank in then.
“The really tough one’s done.”
Ledecky collected her second individual gold medal of the Rio Games and her third overall, ticking off ambitions like so many items on a shopping list. Her time of 1:53.73 fell just short of fellow American Allison Schmitt’s Olympic record.
It was simply good enough, an unusual admission for this unusually driven athlete. The 400 freestyle gold and 400 freestyle relay silver were predictable treasures, but the shorter distance tests her like no other.
“The 200 is such a more stressful event for me than the 400 or the 800, just because I can’t really settle into my rhythm,” Ledecky said. “One mistake and you’re done. It just feels good that it’s over.”
Her longtime coach, Bruce Gemmell, said he got this text after the race from his son Andrew, a distance and open water swimmer who trains with Ledecky: I’ve seen her practice those last 50 over and over and over.
The .35 of a second that made the difference between Ledecky and Sjostrom was carved from those reps. And since no detail is too small in this hybrid of distance and sprint, it’s probably a good thing that Ledecky had practice at surviving a surge of queasiness, as well.
Gemmell told the story of an unnamed male swimmer who, after one especially draining workout at altitude at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, turned to Ledecky and said, “That was so hard, I feel like throwing up.” To which she replied, “I feel that way three times a week.” Tuesday, she said the bilious feeling made her mad, and irritation made her faster.
Her two remaining events, the 800 freestyle relay and the 800 itself, in which Ledecky has broken her own world record three times since she set it in 2013, sits at the end of the meet, waiting for her to claim it. Assuming she does, she will complete a sweep accomplished only by Debbie Meyer in 1968.
A champion’s postrace duties, from media to anti-doping, can drag on for a while. Ledecky said athlete-to-athlete, the first question the morning after is often how much rest they got. “It’s hard to sleep after a great performance,” Ledecky said. She got a nap Tuesday morning and she’ll adjust.
She’s getting a lot of practice at staying up past her bedtime this week.