RIO de JANEIRO — If, like most people, you last paid serious attention to Olympic-caliber swimming in London, when that Michael Phelps dude announced he was retiring: Welcome back to the pool for your every-four-years dip, and just in time to catch the one and only race at these Games at which Katie Ledecky was always likely to take second instead of first.
In the final swim of the final event of the first day of swimming’s eight-day run here at the 2016 Rio Games, Ledecky anchored an American-record 3:31.89 in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay. It took a world record 3:30.65 from the Australians, who were heavily favored, to win.
Even in second place, the legend of Katie Ledecky just keeps getting better and better. This was the first time Ledecky had ever — ever — raced the 4x100m relay for Team USA at an international level. The last time she swam in a 4x100m relay was in high school, she said afterward with a laugh.
Ledecky is going to be the It Girl of these Games. Bank on it. She — and Phelps — are going to get America, if not the world, talking about swimming again.
By virtually every metric, Phelps has achieved his avowed goal of growing the sport. Here’s just one: Along with gymnastics, swimming is now the centerpiece of the first week of the Olympic schedule.
But if it’s not the Olympics, swimming is still not front-page news or a television ratings bonanza. A meaningless Buffalo Bills-Detroit Lions pre-season game would romp.
When the Olympics re-appear, suddenly it's swim time.
In that spirit, this short course, so to speak, for a little catch-up on some swim family essentials:
Missy Franklin will swim in Rio. But she is not the unstoppable force she was four years ago. Missy being Missy, she is, however, just as exuberant as ever.
Phelps is now 31 and a father. He didn’t retire after all — just like Ryan Lochte had predicted. Phelps is likely to swim his first 2016 event on Sunday, in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
Over 16 years, Phelps' mantra has always been to push the boundaries of time and possibility in the pool. This has launched an entire new generation of swimmers worldwide.
This kind-of list could go on and on:
— Britain’s Adam Peaty set a world record in Saturday’s prelims of the men’s 100m breaststroke, 57.55 seconds. Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom went 55.84 to top qualifying in Saturday night’s women’s 100m butterfly, an Olympic record.
— Japan’s Kosuke Hagino put down the fourth-fastest time ever to win the men’s 400m individual medley, 4:06.05, a fraction ahead of a Phelps training partner, Chase Kalisz, in a personal-best 4:06.75.
— Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, who went to college at USC, destroyed the women’s 400m IM world record by two-plus seconds, going 4:26.36.
The fundamental swim question is why so many times have dropped so precipitously since the 2009 era of crazy plastic suits. China’s Sun Yang is here after a doping time-out; usually swimmers don’t do a lot of trash talk; Australia’s Mack Horton, though, said here, “I don’t have time for drug cheats.” In the 400m freestyle, Horton and Sun went 1-2.
Why a 20-year-old from Australia — or for that matter, anyone — believes he (or she) has the right to assert moral superiority is vexing, particularly in the context of the three key Olympic values: excellence, friendship and respect.
All the same, these truths remain self-evident: not to say never, but the culture of the U.S. swim team does not readily lend itself to doping.
In London, Ledecky swam one event, the 800m freestyle. She was just 15. She won.
The next year, at the world championships in Barcelona, Ledecky dominated. Same at the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia.
In the 400m and 800m freestyles later this week, she almost surely will win. The only question: records?
In the shorter 200m freestyle, she probably will win, too. She won the 200m, 400m, 800m (and 1500m, not an Olympic swim for women) in Kazan.
Ledecky is learning on the fly, if you will, how to swim the freestyle sprints. At Trials, she finished seventh in the 100m free. Even so, in Sunday afternoon’s preliminaries of the 4x100m free relay, she ripped off a split of 52.64, fastest on the U.S. team by roughly a full second.
That made putting her on the relay final Saturday night an easy call and, better, as anchor.
In the prelims, it was Australia-USA-Canada 1-2-3, the Australian women going 3:32.29, a new Olympic record.
Then the Aussies went out and threw down that 3:30.65 world record, with the Campbell sisters, Bronte and Cate, swimming the third and fourth legs, for Olympic gold.
In Saturday night’s final, Ledecky swam 52.79. The only faster swims came from true sprinters — the Campbells, American Abby Weitzeil, Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, Holland’s Ranomi Kromowidjojo.
Know this: Ledecky does not take kindly to second. Saturday was the first time since her 2012 Olympic gold in the 800m free she hasn't been standing in the gold-medal position on the podium.
She said all the right things and smiled afterward, because this is how she is, insisting, “We’re really happy with the silver.”
So maybe, in its way, second was exactly the right way to start this meet. Four golds and the one silver sound about right? As the veteran U.S. racer Dana Vollmer said of Ledecky, “She is absolutely a fighter.”