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Katie Ledecky Wins Gold For U.S. In 800-Meter Freestyle

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Katie Ledecky entered her Tokyo Olympics today with pure gold. She won the 800-meter freestyle for the third Olympics in a row and made history. Still, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports from Tokyo, there's a sense the 24-year-old didn't quite live up to unfair expectations that were set for her.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Katie Ledecky led start to finish in the 800, and though her winning time was nowhere near her world record at the 2016 Games, it was still a satisfying 16 laps of revenge. At least, that's how the outside world characterized her victory over silver medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia. Titmus beat Ledecky in the 200- and 400-freestyle races in Tokyo, fueling swimming's new rivalry that Ledecky says is very friendly.

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KATIE LEDECKY: You know, there's nothing between us. We're just going to keep moving forward. And if we happen to get side-by-side, we're going to put up really great races and be fierce competitors when we dive into the water.

GOLDMAN: Titmus, who's only 20, concurred. There's mutual respect, no animus, although those two wins against Ledecky were sweet.

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ARIARNE TITMUS: I mean, to have her on the field, the great swimmer she is - that probably makes it a little bit more satisfying.

GOLDMAN: Ledecky ends her Tokyo run a lot more satisfied. With the 800-freestyle win, she has more individual Olympic medals than any female swimmer in history, six of them, stretching back to the 2012 London Games.

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LEDECKY: You know, I'm really happy. I guess that's just the best way to put it. It's, you know, hard just to make an Olympics. It's hard to win a medal. So to win even one gold at the past three Olympics has been amazing.

GOLDMAN: But she's had to battle a perception that her Tokyo performances have been less than amazing. Thanks to - or perhaps cursed by - her dominance in 2016. She was one of those Olympians entering Tokyo with weighty expectations. So was Caeleb Dressel, another U.S. swimming star. He says the prognosticators seem to forget what all athletes went through to get here after a year's delay.

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CAELEB DRESSEL: We couldn't train for a big chunk. And then we have more months than ever to build a base up, tough to get everything lined up appropriately 'cause nobody knew what to do. No one had the book that says, oh, this is what you do when there's a global pandemic to get ready for the Olympics.

GOLDMAN: Which makes Dressel's three golds, including his world record in the 100-meter butterfly Saturday, amazing, to use Ledecky's word. Dressel's not done racing in Tokyo. Ledecky is but says she'll be back for the next Olympics in 2024 to battle her rival and the ever-present expectations. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.