RIO DE JANEIRO -- As she stood on the starting block watching the race unfold before her, 19-year-old Katie Ledecky did everything she could to control her nerves. She couldn't remember the last time she stood in this position, anchoring a 400 freestyle relay final. Maybe in high school? A club meet? But this was the Olympics. The biggest swim meet on the planet.
Four years earlier in London she had to wait seven days to make her Olympic debut. And even then she had spent the week overlooked until halfway through the 800 free when the world realized the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic delegation was about to win Olympic gold. Now she found herself waiting on the blocks in the most important position of the marquee race on the Olympics' opening night.
She said it felt weird watching three teammates dive in before her. She tried to block it out and focus on doing everything she could to bring home the gold. A week earlier, even she didn't know if she would be swimming the event in preliminaries. She had finished seventh in the 100 free a month earlier at Olympic trials. But after impressing her coaches during training camp she earned one of the four spots on the team for prelims. Then in that race she swam the second-fastest split of the 64 competitors in 52.64 seconds. It all led to that moment, anchoring the final leg.
"It's so much fun to have a relay as a first event," Ledecky said afterward. "To relax and know you have these three girls to compete with."
For those who don't follow the sport regularly, it might not have seemed like a big deal. Ledecky is a budding American star. Of course she anchored one of the marquee races of the meet. But Ledecky has built her success as a distance freestyler. She's the world-record holder in the 400- 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle events. Swimming the 100 -- against the blindingly fast Australians no less -- is like asking a marathon runner to take down Usain Bolt.
On this night, the task would prove too tall. In the lane next to Ledecky, Australia's Cate Campbell split in 51.97, and any chance Ledecky had to catch the Aussies was gone. The American team of Simone Manuel, Abbey Weitzeil, Dana Vollmer and Ledecky would swim an American record 3:31.89, more than a second behind the Aussie's world-record time of 3:30.65.
But the race was about far more than first and second place. This was a seminal moment in the career of the Americans' brightest young star. For Ledecky to swim a pair of sub-53 splits speaks volumes about not only what can be expected of her in these Olympics but potential future games down the road.
Ledecky left London a young distance freestyler, and three years later at World Championships in Russia swept the 400, 800 and 1,500. Adding the 200 and now potentially the 100 to her future event list would be unheard of. Or would it?
"It's absolutely amazing to have the versatility to have all those different speeds and races -- it says a huge amount for her athletic ability," Vollmer said of her teammate. "She has that amazing ability to change her rhythm or whatever you want to call it for each race. She's an absolute fighter. I had no fears with her as our anchor that she would dig deep and fight as hard as she could."
Ledecky is scheduled to swim the 400 free on Sunday. She will also compete in the 200 and 800 free and the 200-free relay later this week. Any combination of five medals and she will tie Missy Franklin's London record for a female swimmer.
"She's Katie Ledecky," U.S. women's coach Dave Marsh said between sessions Saturday. "She doesn't know her top end yet. She's not superwoman, but she's pretty darn super."