Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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Coco Gauff eliminated from French Open

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PARIS (AP) — American teenager Coco Gauff’s French Open debut ended in the second round after she double-faulted 19 times in a 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 loss to 159th-ranked qualifier Martina Trevisan.

Gauff double-faulted twice in the last game of the 2-hour, 11-minute match.

The 16-year-old Gauff has reached at least the third round at the other three major tournaments.

For Trevisan, a 26-year-old from Italy, this was her first victory in a Grand Slam match played to its conclusion.

She lost in the first round at the Australian Open this year in her first appearance at a major, then advanced Sunday at Roland Garros when her opponent, Camila Giorgi, stopped playing in the second set because of an injury.

Against Gauff, Trevisan kept yelling, “Yes!” and “Let’s go!” in Italian between points, then let out a high-pitched scream when the match ended.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier, Defending champion Rafael Nadal reached the third round by beating American player Mackenzie McDonald 6-1, 6-0, 6-3.

The No. 2-seeded Spaniard is looking to win his record-extending 13th French Open title and equal Roger Federer’s men’s record of 20 major titles overall.

Nadal improved his record at Roland Garros to 95-2 when he sealed victory on his first match point. He next faces 74th-ranked Stefano Travaglia of Italy.

Sebastian Korda has now beaten two tour veterans in his first French Open.

After eliminating Andreas Seppi in his opening main draw match, the 20-year-old American qualifier took out 21st-seeded John Isner in the second round with a 6-4, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 win.

A former junior world No. 1 and winner of the boys title at the 2018 Australian Open — and the son of 1992 French Open finalist Petr Korda — Korda broke Isner’s normally dominant serve five times.

The No. 213-ranked Korda will next face either Mikhail Kukushkin or qualifier Pedro Martinez on Friday.

Also, No. 27-seeded American Taylor Fritz reached the third round by serving 16 aces in a straight-set victory over Radu Albot.

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Figure skating’s Grand Prix Final postponed

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The Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international figure skating competition, will not take place as scheduled in December in Beijing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The International Skating Union announced Wednesday that the Final was postponed.

There were “a number of logistical points raised by potentially participating teams that meant that hosting the competitions on the scheduled dates (close to the end of year holidays and national championships) would have impacted on the number of participants, given the potential need to quarantine on returning to their home country,” according to the ISU.

The ISU is “evaluating the continuation” of the upcoming season and possible rescheduling of the competition in China, which doubles as a 2022 Beijing Olympic test event.

The Grand Prix Final, held every December after the six-event Grand Prix Series, is the biggest indicator of Olympic and world championships medal prospects.

The Grand Prix Series is still scheduled to start with Skate America in Las Vegas from Oct. 23-25.

Fields have not been announced, but skaters are restricted to compete at the event in their home nation or in or near their training location.

The ISU also announced that the remaining World Cup short track speed skating stops in 2020 were postponed or canceled — Seoul and Beijing, both in December.

Previously, the first short track World Cups in November were canceled. All four of the long-track speed skating World Cups scheduled this fall were also canceled.

The next scheduled World Cup short- or long-track events are in February.

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