It’s being billed as ‘the duel in the pool that the world wants to see’ – except nobody will be there to watch.
When US superstar swimmer Katie Ledecky defends her Olympic crown against Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in three enthralling races next week, the only cheering echoing around a near-empty Tokyo Aquatics Centre will be pre-recorded, but that won’t lessen the intensity one bit.
For nine years, since bursting on the world scene aged 15 at the 2012 London Olympics where she won the 800m freestyle, Ledecky has ruled the pool.
A year after London, she dominated the world championships in Barcelona, taking gold in the 400m, 800m and 1500m.
In 2015 at the world championships in Kazan, Russia, she went one better, defending her three titles and adding the 200m freestyle for good measure.
Young gun Aussie swimmer Ariarne Titmus is chasing gold medal glory against US superstar Katie Ledecky
Katie Ledecky already has five gold medals to her name, including the 800m freestyle from the London Olympics aged just 15
Brisbane based Ariarne Titmus has beaten her rival Katie Ledecky before – in the 400m freestyle final at the 2019 world titles in South Korea
Then came the Rio Olympics, where she totally demoralised her rivals in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle.
Tasmanian-born, Brisbane-based Titmus remembers watching on TV as a 15-year-old when Ledecky snared her three-gold medal haul in Rio, setting world records in the 400m and 800m.
It was her ruthless performance in the 800m, which she won by nearly 12 seconds, that earned her the title ‘The Dominator’ and had up-and-comer Titmus shaking her head in awe.
‘No-one is ever going to get near this chick,’ Titmus recalls thinking.
She was wrong. Someone has got near her – beaten her in fact – and that someone is Titmus.
At the 2019 world championships held in Gwangju, South Korea, Titmus handed Ledecky her first defeat in 28 races at major events when she swam over the top of her 20 metres out from the wall to win the 400m freestyle final by 1.21 seconds.
After the race Ledecky complained of tired legs, and later spent several hours in a local emergency room being treated for what was described as ‘a stomach virus’.
All of which suited Titmus and her coach Dean Boxall just fine.
They are happy to downplay the significance of the shock win two years ago as they prepare for the three-race showdown in Japan, which starts with the 400m freestyle on Monday afternoon (AEST), followed by the 200m on Wednesday and 800m on Saturday.
What they can’t downplay is the electric performance of Titmus at the Australian Olympic trials last month in Adelaide when, after a disrupted preparation because of Covid protocols, she swam the second fastest 400m freestyle ever recorded.
Her slick time of 3:56.90 was just 0.44 secs behind Ledecky’s world record.
At the US trials, held a week later, Ledecky won her event in 4:01.27, a whopping five seconds behind the mark set by her younger Australian rival, whose nickname ‘Arnie’ has, inevitably, seen her dubbed ‘The Terminator’ by the media.
It sets up an enticing prospect: the young hunter, 20, stalking a prey that at just 24 years-of-age, is far from past her prime. In fact, her many supporters would say she is yet to reach it.
But this is no ordinary Olympic swim meet, if such a thing could be said to exist.
Due to Covid, the preparation has been different, to say the least. The regular four-year training cycle to the biggest event on the sporting calendar has been extended to five.
US swimming royalty Katie Ledecky will be favourite to win the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle events at the Olympics – but she is wary of emerging Aussie Ariarne Titmus
Ariarne Titmus is considered a gold medal chance ahead of the swimming events in Tokyo – despite the strength of her competition
There has been the mental uncertainty over whether the Games would even take place.
Now that they are finally underway, the athletes are locked up in team bubbles when not competing and there is none of the usual ‘buzz’ around the city produced by streets, shops and restaurants filled with visitors from all over the world.
Add in the fact that there will be no crowds at venues to produce the atmosphere that can lift performances to unimaginable heights – or cause athletes to freeze like a deer in the headlights of a car – and you have a whole raft of factors that could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the two swimmers’ personal three-race showdown.
Swimming Australia deputy chairperson Tracy Stockwell knows better than most how those outside influences can affect a swimmer’s performance.
As Tracy Caulkins, she was the USA’s star performer in the pool at the LA Games in 1984, winning gold medals in the 200m and 400m individual medley and 4x100m medley relay.
Married to Australia’s 100m freestyle silver medallist Mark Stockwell from the 1984 Games and living in Brisbane since 1991 as head of Swimming Australia’s high-performance committee, she has closely monitored the progress of Titmus.
She believes her best chance of beating Ledecky will be in the 400m.
‘I think all three races will be close but if Ariarne is going to win only one, the 400m will probably be it,’ she said.
‘She showed at the trials that she has the speed whereas Katie, as a 1500m swimmer, has the endurance so she will probably have the edge in the 800m.
‘We haven’t seen any female swimmer as dominant as Katie for a long time. She wasn’t well at the 2019 worlds but still gave a good fight in the 400m.
Tracy Caulkins, the USA’s star performer in the pool at the LA Games in 1984, believes Katie Ledecky (pictured) can be beaten by Aussie Ariarne Titmus in the 400m freestyle final at the Tokyo Olympics
Ariarne Titmus (pictured right), is just 20, leaving her with time on her side to create her own slice of Olympic history
‘Even so, that win gave Ariarne the belief that Katie is beatable and that is going to be very important. She’s going into the Olympics with youth and momentum on her side and that is an advantage, but at the same time Katie has the experience of competing at two Olympics and that could be a big help.’
Except for the fact that these Olympics will not be anything like London or Rio. Could that be an advantage for Titmus, who arrived in Tokyo with no pre-conceived ideas of what to expect?
‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘Katie is used to those huge crowds and a lot of noise. They get 10,000 people to the US Olympic trials.
‘She swam for Stanford in the US college system where it’s all about the team. I’m not sure what is happening over there with the crowds but there is a chance that they might not even let the other swimmers sit in the stands to cheer each other on, which would be very strange for Katie.
‘Some people say the swimmers can’t hear the crowd, but they can. Swimming at a home Olympics was amazing. My first race was the 400m IM and after I dived in I came up half a body-length ahead and the crowd went wild.
‘I was so excited to hear that. I had to tell myself, ‘Whoa, hang on, you’ve still got 375 metres to go. Get a grip, stick with the race plan’. ‘Both swimmers will be missing that, but there’s a chance it could affect Katie more.
‘Either way, I think they are going to be three great races and it could take a world record to win the 200m and 400m. The third 100m will be telling in the 400m. Where they are positioned at the end of that will be crucial.
‘I just hope that they don’t play it too tactically and eyeball each other up and down the pool. I’d like to see one of them really go for it.’
With The Dominator up against The Terminator for the biggest prize in sport? You can bet on it.