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TOKYO — It was Thursday night, and Katie Ledecky was back at the Olympic pool, qualifying first in another event, this one her last race of these Games, Saturday’s 800-meter freestyle.
But the conversation quickly turned to an earlier portion of her work day, Thursday morning’s women’s 4x200 freestyle relay, where Ledecky’s ferocious anchor leg nearly delivered an unexpected victory for the Americans, if only she hadn’t run out of room to catch the Chinese swimmer who had such a big head start.
Nonetheless, Ledecky led the Americans to a very satisfying silver medal, defeating the gold-medal favorite Australians, who settled for the bronze, and swimming the second-fastest time ever, second only to the new world record China set while winning the relay.
“Everyone counted us out,” Ledecky told NBC right after the race. “These girls just swam lights out and got us into a position where I felt like I could take on those two lanes next to us. I wish I had another half second in me but I gave it my all.”
Ledecky, 24, the most decorated female swimmer in history, won her second silver medal of these Games (she finished second in the 400 freestyle earlier in the week) to go with her gold in the inaugural women’s 1,500 freestyle. She is the gold-medal favorite in the 800 as well.
When Ledecky dove in for the fourth and final leg of the relay, the United States was nearly two seconds behind China and one and a half seconds behind Australia. She had work to do, and she got to it right away.
As she flew through the water, the gap started closing. She was reeling in both the Australian and the Chinese swimmer. She passed Australia’s anchor leg swimmer, Leah Neale, at the 150-meter mark of her 200-meter swim.
She was closing in as well on the Chinese anchor, Li Bingjie, but did she have enough room to catch her?
“The last 50, I breathed to the other side so I couldn’t exactly see where I was,” she said Thursday evening. “I knew I was still ahead of the Aussie but I couldn’t really tell on the Chinese swimmer. I just knew I had to keep kicking and keep moving as fast as I could and whatever the outcome was I knew I had put in my best effort.”
As it turned out, it was close; just .40 of a second separated the first-place Chinese and the second-place Americans at the end. Ledecky had made up more than a second and a half in those 200 meters.
Ledecky’s split was a scintillating 1:53.76, far faster than anyone else in the field. As a comparison, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, who won the gold medal in the 200 meters Wednesday when Ledecky finished fifth, led off for the Aussies and swam 1:54.51.
In winning the gold, China broke the world record in 7:40.33. The Americans’ time of 7:40.73 also would have broken the previous world record of 7:41.50 set by Australia at the 2019 world championships. Australia, in third, also went below their old mark in 7:41.29.
It wasn’t another gold for Ledecky and the Americans, but it was close.
“We came in as underdogs,” Ledecky said. “It was awesome.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Katie Ledecky delivers silver for US relay, beating Australia in final