The Tokyo 2020 Olympic swim meet poses interesting tactical dilemmas for competitors. Like any major competition, athletes need to swim through their heat, and sometimes a semi-final, ahead of the medal swim. It is a delicate dance – swimmers must leave enough in the pool to ensure they qualify for the final, preferably earning a central lane, without burning too many match sticks and coming up empty in the final. The mental dimension can also be significant; a blistering time in the heats can scare rivals, but a slower qualifying standard leaves an element of mystery ahead of a big match-up.
In Tokyo these dilemmas are compounded by the unusual scheduling. Swim meets around the world follow a tried and tested schedule: heats in the morning, finals at night. In Tokyo, to meet the demands of American television, this format is reversed (the same was done at the Beijing Olympics in 2008).
For events without semi-finals, swimmers have to qualify in the heats one evening, get a few hours’ kip, and then be back in the pool racing for medals the next morning. For those who struggle to sleep as the butterflies build, this limited window can be excruciating – on Sunday morning an American relay swimmer admitted that she had only managed one hour’s shut-eye the night before. For races with a larger field, and hence semi-finals, the schedule is slightly less taxing: evening heat, morning semi, an evening off and then the final the following day. But the longer wait can allow doubt to build in the mind.
These tactical quandaries were front of mind in the pool on Sunday night, after swimmers had been given the opportunity to assess what worked and what did not for their compatriots and rivals over the past 24 hours.
It was evident, for example, that those in the men’s 400m individual medley had gone out too strong on Saturday evening; the winning time in the Sunday morning final, claimed by American Chase Kalisz, was slower than the best qualifying time, swam by the ultimate bronze medallist, Australia’s Brendon Smith, the night before. That is distinctly unusual. After his win, Kalisz complained he had been awake since 4am and labelled his own winning time “terrible”. But going too slow in qualifying can have its own dangers; 2016 bronze medallist and home favourite Daiya Seto did not even make the final after finishing fifth in his heat.
Swim coaches are an astute bunch – the trials and errors from the first day and a half of the Olympic meet will inform the strategies of medal contenders in the week ahead. And it was against this fraught context that American Katie Ledecky and Australia’s Ariarne Titmus completed their first swims of Tokyo 2020, in the 400m freestyle heats.
The pair hardly needed introductions in the empty Tokyo Aquatics Centre: the queen of the pool and her challenger. Ledecky has long been a swimming prodigy – she won gold as a 15-year-old in London before claiming a stunning haul of four gold medals and one silver in Rio. But ever since a teenage Titmus dethroned Ledecky at the last world championships, this Olympic showdown has been eagerly anticipated.
Ledecky was the fastest qualifier, with a comfortable 4:00.45. In the subsequent heat, Titmus was a second slower – qualifying third fastest overall (China’s Li Bingjie was just behind Ledecky in their heat). But after Titmus swam the second fastest 400m time in history last month, behind a world record Ledecky set at Rio and has never come close to since, there was no need for mind games from the Tasmanian. She has already thrown down the gauntlet to the rest of the field. Titmus conserved energy and positioned herself perfectly for the final.
“I had to go out there and have a bit of a hit-out,” she said afterwards. “It wasn’t slow. But I’d like to think I have a bit more in the tank for the final.”
On Monday morning, the pair will meet again at last. Ledecky v Titmus is finally here. The rivals are expected to face off for individual gold at least two more times later this week – in the 200m and 800m freestyle – along with several expected relay match-ups. But the blockbuster 400m race has a special cachet, arising from its beguiling middle distance. Too long to sprint, too short to settle into an endurance rhythm – the 400m strains the sinew and exacerbates the pain. It is the race that crowns the queen of the pool. On Monday, there can only be one.
“I’m relieved more than anything that the moment is finally here,” said Titmus on the eve of her date with destiny. “I know that I’ve done the work. I’m happy that in the morning I can go out there and just do the easy part of this whole situation. It took a work to come here, so it’s good to be at the fun end.”