Katie Ledecky opens the world swimming championships on Sunday with arguably the most anticipated race of her career.
The 400m freestyle final in Fukuoka, Japan, is expected to feature Ledecky, a seven-time Olympic gold medalist and 19-time world champion; Australian Ariarne Titmus, who won this event over Ledecky at the 2019 Worlds and the Tokyo Games; and 16-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh, who took the world record from Titmus on March 28.
It would mark the first time that the last three world record holders in one Olympic program event meet in a major championship final since the 2012 Olympic men’s 100m breaststroke (Brendan Hansen, Kosuke Kitajima, Brenton Rickard).
But Sunday’s race is reminiscent of an even bigger moment: the 2004 Olympic men’s 200m free.
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That was dubbed the “Race of the Century” for including, at the time, the four fastest men in history, all of them individual Olympic gold medalists: Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett of Australia, Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands and a 19-year-old American named Michael Phelps.
Back then, Phelps, an underdog, was so amped for the opportunity to race them — particularly Thorpe — that he bristled at his coach’s suggestion to drop the 200m free from his busy Olympic schedule. (Phelps ultimately earned a satisfying bronze, shattering his American record by 1.28 seconds.)
Ledecky, who is one individual world title shy of Phelps’ record 15, is outwardly staying calm ahead of her own shared historic moment.
“It feels pretty similar,” to past 400m frees, she said. “I’m always excited to get the meet started.”
McIntosh, who had Ledecky quotes on her childhood bedroom wall, shared the sentiment.
“I’m really excited to see what happens, and all I can really control is what I do for myself from now until then,” she said. “Any outside noise is not really relevant to me.”
Titmus, whose coach used to shout Ledecky’s name in practices for motivation, yearns to race Ledecky for the first time since the Tokyo Games.
“There’s going to be three women, hopefully, really close to the world record or breaking the world record,” she said. “To be hunter or hunted, I’m just going to go in there to give it a red-hot crack.”
Titmus assessed her chances as even with Ledecky and McIntosh, but the Canadian who trains in Florida has the momentum.
McIntosh broke Titmus’ world record by 32 hundredths on March 28, taking it down to 3:56.40. She also broke the 400m individual medley world record at the Canadian trials and is fastest in the world this year in four events.
McIntosh was asked if she’ll be swifter at worlds than at trials.
“I’m not going to guess things like that,” she said. “I try not to focus on that at all.”
Titmus won the Australian trials in June in 3:58.47, the second-best time in the world this year. That’s still two seconds shy of McIntosh’s record, but Titmus has since gained confidence.
“At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t too happy with where I was, and I’ve really shifted my mindset. … I just had a lot going on in my personal life, which was overriding my focus on swimming,” she said. “Especially the last month, I feel like I’ve done things in training I’ve never done before.”
Before Titmus, Ledecky held the world record since 2014, getting down to 3:56.46 before Titmus took it in May 2022.
Ledecky’s best time this year is 3:58.84, which is fairly in line with her best times going into major international meets over the years.
She specifically remembered 2013, when she raced the 400m free internationally for the first time at the world championships. Ledecky crushed her personal best by 4.23 seconds at the meet to become the second woman to break four minutes in the event.
Ledecky has since broken four minutes another 25 times. In that span, only two other women have broken four minutes: McIntosh and Titmus.
“Definitely, I have a lot of great memories of racing a lot of different people in that race,” Ledecky said. “I think it’s no different this year.”