RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Katie Ledecky has given the United States its first swimming gold medal of the Rio Olympics with a world record in the women’s 400-meter freestyle.
The result was totally expected. Ledecky has dominated the longer freestyle events since winning gold in the 800 free at the London Olympics as a 15-year-old.
She was doing nothing but racing against the clock Sunday night. No problem there.
Ledecky kicked off the first wall with a lead of nearly a body length and steadily pulled away from the overmatched field — as well as the world-record line superimposed on the video screen as her powerful arms churned through the water.
When Ledecky saw the time — 3 minutes, 56.46 seconds — she let out an uncharacteristic scream and pumped her right fist. The 19-year-old crushed the mark of 3:58.37 that she set nearly two years ago on the Gold Coast of Australia, and had been chasing ever since.
The nerves were there. Unmistakable. Unavoidable. Standing in the darkened tunnel before entering Rio Olympic Arena on Sunday night, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team felt the pressure that comes not from outside expectations but those held within.
Then the lights came on.
And just like that, the young women in the glittery red-and-blue leotards national team coordinator Martha Karolyi has molded into a global force relaxed.
On bars. On beam. On vault and floor too. Their not-a-typo score of 185.238 was nearly 10 points better than second-place China through four of the five subdivisions, a preposterous gap in a sport where the difference between first and second is measured in fractions.
“It’s never 100 percent perfect but I think we showed that our gymnastics is of the highest level,” Karolyi said.
One no opponent is close to reaching. If the U.S. had swapped out its highest score on each event with its lowest, it would still be up by six points.
Three-time world champion Simone Biles led the way. Her score of 62.366 was well clear of teammate Aly Raisman. So much for the butterflies in her stomach.
“I do a very good job at hiding it,” Biles said. “The team, we just calm it down.”
Consider it a luxury of being so far beyond the rest of the planet. All five women earned a spot in either the all-around or event finals, or in the case of Biles and Raisman, both.
Raisman, a three-time Olympic medalist four years ago, grabbed the second spot in the individual all-around for the Americans by edging reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas thanks in part to what Raisman called “the best bar routine of my life.”
Rules limit each country to two gymnasts per event in the all-around and event finals, meaning even though Douglas was third overall, she’ll miss out on a chance to defend the crown she won in London. Not that she was moping. When Raisman drilled her dismount on beam, Douglas rose from her chair and gave her a hug.
A controversial selection to the five-woman team after a so-so performance at Olympic trials, Douglas validated Karolyi’s choice with steady performances all over, including a bars set that earned her a spot in the individual finals.
“She said ‘I believe in you, and you can go out and do it,’” Douglas said. “At the end of the day that means so much … because she’s very precise. It feels good.”
The top eight teams in qualifying move on to Tuesday’s team final, where the U.S. is expected to repeat the gold it won easily in London and give it to Karolyi as a retirement present. Karolyi is stepping away after the games, though she’s hardly in a hurry to get there. There are still a few more lessons to teach.
Serena and Venus Williams never had lost an Olympic doubles match until Sunday night, going 15-0 and earning three gold medals together.
Their first-round opponents at the Rio de Janeiro Games, the Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova, never had won any sort of match as a pair, at any event. And they had zero wins between them in Olympic doubles competition, going a combined 0-3 with other partners.
So it was rather stunning, to say the least, when the Williams sisters were beaten 6-3, 6-4 by Safarova and Strycova in the first round in Rio.
“We played terrible,” Serena said, “and it showed in the results.”
The American duo was seeded No. 1 and coming off a 14th Grand Slam championship together at Wimbledon a month ago.