Caeleb Dressel got started on his quest for six gold medals in swimming, while Katie Ledecky found herself in a very unusual position.
Dressel led off a US victory in the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay Monday at the Tokyo Olympics, easing a bit of America’s sting from Ledecky’s first Olympic loss.
Australian Ariarne Titmus — nicknamed the “Terminator” — lived up to her billing when she chased down Ledecky in the 400 freestyle to win one of the most anticipated races of the Summer Games.
Titmus, who trailed by nearly a full body-length at the halfway mark of the eight-lap race, turned on the speed to touch in 3 minutes, 56.69 seconds. It was the second-fastest time in history, surpassed only by Ledecky’s world record of 3:56.46 from the 2016 Rio Games.
The defending Olympic champion settled for the silver this time in 3:57.36 -- the fourth-fastest time ever recorded and her best performance in three years.
Just not good enough.
“I fought tooth and nail,” Ledecky said. “She definitely swam a really smart race. She was really controlled up front. I felt pretty smooth and strong going out and flipped at the 300 and it was like, ‘Oh, she’s right there.’”
And then she was gone.
For the first time in her brilliant Olympic career, Ledecky felt the sting of defeat, dished out by a rival from Down Under who made it clear she was not intimidated by the American star.
“It’s probably the biggest thing you could pull off in your sporting career,” Titmus said, “so I’m over the moon.”
No one else was even close. The bronze went to China’s Li Bingjie in 4:01.08.
Then the spotlight shifted to Dressel, who has been hailed as the successor to Michael Phelps.
Dressel put the US out front, and the three who followed him in the relay made sure it stood up.
“I felt good the whole way, I knew I had to get my hand in the wall first and get some clean water,” Dressel said. “And everyone did their job. It’s a relay for a reason, it’s four guys for a reason, it’s certainly not just me. It’s certainly not just one guy.”
The 24-year-old, tattooed Floridian swam the first leg in a blistering 47.26. Blake Pieroni and Bowe Becker kept the Americans out front before Zach Apple turned in an anchor leg of 46.69 to leave no doubt at the end.
The US won in 3:08.97, the third-fastest time in history. Italy took the silver in 3:10.11, with the bronze going to Australia in 3:10.22.
“The scariest part was my leg for myself, because I had control over that,” Dressel said. “I knew they were going to get the job done, I wasn’t scared at all. Especially when Zach hit the water. I saw him break out and I knew it was over.”
Apple climbed from the pool to an embrace from Dressel, who is set for a grueling schedule of three individual events and three relays in Tokyo.
One down, five to go.
Ledecky’s disappointment was a downer for the Americans, who won six of 12 medals on Sunday but were shut out in the first two finals Monday.
Torri Huske and Michael Andrew just missed medals with fourth-place finishes, then it was Ledecky settling for the second spot on the podium — a stunner for perhaps the greatest women’s freestyle swimmer in history.
Ledecky lost an individual Olympic final for the first time after winning the 800 free at the 2012 London Games, then capturing three more golds in the 200, 400 and 800 free at Rio de Janeiro five years ago.
“I knew it was going to be a battle to the end,” Ledecky said. “I didn’t feel like I died. She just had that faster 50 or 75. Can’t get much better than that.”
Titmus was every bit the Terminator at the end.
“Honestly, at the 200 I was a little bit worried,” the Aussie said. “I knew she would be there. No one is going to come to the Olympics and catch a Katie Ledecky unprepared. I guess I just had to trust myself.
“I tried to stay as composed as I could and use the easy speed that I have. And to pull it off in the back end against someone who has an amazing second half of her race, I’m really proud of that.”
Ledecky will get another crack at Titmus in the 200 free, and the American is heavily favoured to repeat in the 800 and add another gold in the 1,500 — a new event for the women at these games.
After racing each other right in the middle of the pool, the swimmers clasped hands when it was over.
They climbed out of the pool together, giving each other a hug.
“I just thanked her,” Titmus said. “She’s set this standard for middle-distance freestyle. If I didn’t have someone like her to chase I definitely wouldn’t be swimming the way I am.”
Perhaps the surest bet at the pool, Britain’s Adam Peaty repeated as Olympic champion in the men’s 100 breaststroke.
Peaty was the world-record holder and the first man to break both 58 and 57 seconds in his signature event. He posted the fifth-fastest time in history (57.37) to blow away the field.
Arno Kamminga of the Netherlands claimed the silver in 58.00, while the bronze went to Italy’s Nicolo Martinenghi in 58.33. Andrew was next in 58.84.
In the first final of the day, Maggie MacNeil captured gold for Canada in the 100 butterfly.
The reigning world champion touched first in 55.59, beating Zhang Yufei of China (55.64) for the top spot. Emma McKeon of Australia took the bronze in 55.72, edging the 18-year-old Huske by one-hundredth of a second.
Huske went out fast, as is her style, and appeared to be in front with about 10 meters to go. But she faded on her final strokes and just missed a spot on the podium.
Defending champion and world-record holder Sarah Sjöström of Sweden was seventh.
“”I knew the challenge for me would be win one race then get ready for the next one,” said Sjöström, who had a metal plate and six screws inserted to hold her right arm together after a February fall.
“I did everything I physically could, all the mental preparations. I couldn’t do anything more.”