Katie Ledecky suffered her first loss in a major international 400m freestyle, getting run down by Australian 18-year-old Ariarne Titmus in the last 50 meters to open the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea on Sunday.
Titmus overcame a .62 of a second deficit going into the last 50 and won by 1.21 seconds over Ledecky in 3:58.76. Ledecky held off countrywoman Leah Smith by 1.32 seconds for the silver.
“I just got to the last turn and felt like I just tightened up,” said Ledecky, who lost a major international final for the third time (the other two were in the 200m free). “My legs were just dead. Obviously, Ariarne took advantage of that.
“This stings a little, unfamiliar and different.”
Ledecky, known for her endurance, had the second-slowest last 50 meters of the eight-woman field. Titmus went 1.83 seconds faster over the last length of the pool.
“I knew that I properly had that in me,” said Titmus, whose coach is known to utter Ledecky’s name as motivation in practices. “She’s the greatest ever.”
Ledecky had won the last six major international 400m frees among the world championships, Pan Pacific Championships and Olympics dating to 2013. But she swam her slowest time of her seven major finals on Sunday and her 18th-fastest 400m free overall.
“My physical preparation has been great for this meet, really expected to be a lot faster than that,” said Ledecky, who said last week she was feeling better in the pool than in a long time, perhaps since Rio. “I knew it was going to be a tough race going in. I was nervous for it.”
This makes Titmus, nicknamed “Terminator,” the favorite in Wednesday’s 200m freestyle, too, given she has been faster than Ledecky in that event this year. Titmus emerged as a rival in 2018, outsplitting Ledecky in the last half of the Pan Pacific Championships 400m free and giving the American her closest-ever major win in the event (still by a comfortable 1.16 seconds).
Ledecky is just getting started. She’s slated for five events in Gwangju, South Korea, continuing with the 1500m freestyle heats on Monday. She is also expected to swim the 200m and 800m frees and the 4x200m free.
“I need to rebound from this, and I need to get my fight back,” she said.
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Also Sunday, Caeleb Dressel led off a U.S. 4x100m freestyle that earned gold in 3:09.06, a world championships record. Dressel, who earned a Michael Phelps record-tying seven golds in 2017, was joined on the relay by Blake Pieroni, Zach Apple and eight-time Olympic medalist Nathan Adrian, who announced in January that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“I’m very grateful to be here racing,” Adrian said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “It beats the heck out of being home, waiting for test results, waiting for another surgery.”
Australia won the women’s 4x100m free, anchored by Cate Campbell, who had the fastest split, in 3:30.21. The U.S., anchored by Simone Manuel, broke the American record for silver in 3:31.02.
China’s Sun Yang earned his fourth straight 400m free world title amid a doping controversy that has American Lilly King criticizing.
Sun grabbed his 10th world title overall in 3:42.44, relegating Rio Olympic champ Mack Horton of Australia to silver by .73. Horton called Sun a “drug cheat” in Rio for Sun was banned three months in 2014.
Horton stood behind the medal podium rather than on it for the Chinese anthem. Horton and Sun did not shake hands at their medal ceremony, and Horton stood a step away from Sun and bronze medalist Gabriele Detti for post-ceremony photos.
“[Sun’s] actions — and how it’s been handled — speak louder than anything I’ll ever say,” Horton said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Adam Peaty became the first man to break 57 seconds in the 100m breaststroke semifinals, lowering his world record for the fifth time to 56.88. The next-fastest man in history’s best time is 58.29.
Swimming worlds continue Monday morning ET with finals in the men’s 50m butterfly (Dressel) and 100m breaststroke (Peaty) and women’s 100m butterfly (Sarah Sjöström) and 200m individual medley (Katinka Hosszu).
NBC Olympics researcher Megan Soisson contributed to this report from Gwangju.
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