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Katie Ledecky won her third consecutive Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle final.
Katie Ledecky won her third consecutive Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle final. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

TOKYO — The expression that crept across Katie Ledecky’s face after touching the wall in first place in the women’s 800-meter freestyle Saturday wasn’t the sheer joy that sometimes has shown up there in the past. It wasn’t the release of pent-up emotion that manifested itself in sobs after her first gold medal of these Tokyo Olympics four days earlier. It wasn’t even relief at reaching the end of the most ambitious Olympic program anyone ever has attempted.

What showed up initially on Ledecky’s face, after clinching her fourth medal overall and second gold of the Games, was pain. This one hurt, in a way it didn’t in 2012, when she won the 800 free in London as a 15-year-old, or in 2016, when she won in Rio de Janeiro at age 19. This time, she was 24, holding off a pack of young and hungry swimmers, and she had to go until it hurt, and then go some more.

“Just catching my breath,” she gasped, mere minutes after her winning swim, when asked how she was feeling. “It’s been a long week. I knew this was going to be hard.”

In touching the wall in a time 8 minutes 12.57 seconds, Ledecky held off hard-charging rival Ariarne Titmus (8:13.83), the 20-year-old Australian who emerged as Ledecky’s top challenger, and who beat her twice in four memorable head-to-head duels here.

Ledecky’s win also completed an unprecedented three-peat in a grueling event in which swimmers rarely even compete in three straight Olympics, let alone win them. Just two other women had won any event in three straight Games, neither of them at such a demanding distance: Australia’s Dawn Fraser (100 free, 1956-64) and Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi (200 back, 1988-96).

“It’s been in the back of my mind,” Ledecky said of her historic three-peat in the 800 free, “both in good way and also - sometimes that thought gets to you a little, and you think, ‘Oh, I wonder if there’s a reason why people have trouble three-peating.’ It’s hard to win a gold, and to do it three times in that event was amazing.”

For Ledecky, Saturday’s 800 wrapped up a meet of unprecedented exertion, requiring a staggering 6,200 meters of racing across seven days. No one could have exceeded it in previous Olympics, if only because the women’s 1,500 free and the men’s 800 free did not exist before this one.

Ledecky leaves Tokyo with four more medals - golds in the 800 and 1,500, silvers in the 400 and the 4x200 relay - giving her 10 for her career. That leaves her behind just three fellow Americans - Natalie Coughlin, Jenny Thompson and Torres, who all have 12 - for the most ever by a female swimmer. As for men, just Phelps (23), Ryan Lochte (12), Mark Spitz (11) and Matt Biondi (11) have more.

After her 800, Ledecky confirmed what had long been assumed: that she would swim at least through the Paris 2024 Games, by the end of which she could emerge trailing only Phelps among all swimmers in history.

Ledecky’s legacy was visible everywhere Saturday - from the surrounding lanes, where swimmers such as Titmus and 15-year-old Team USA phenom Katie Grimes have cited Ledecky as having inspired them to become distance swimmers - to the televisions back home, where NBC wouldn’t dare cut to a commercial during her longest races, as it sometimes did in the pre-Ledecky era.

Earlier in the meet, Titmus beat Ledecky over 400 and 200 meters, events in which she was ranked No. 1 in the world coming in, with Ledecky taking silver in the former and finishing fifth and out of the medals in the latter. They met a third time in the relay, with Ledecky anchoring a blistering anchor leg to edge Team USA past the Aussies for silver.

In the 800, however, Ledecky had home-field advantage. She won the 800 free gold in London by more than four seconds, won it again in Rio by more than 11 seconds, and she owned the top 24 times in history at that distance entering Saturday.

For the past few years, Ledecky’s toughest opponent has been the thin yellow line digitally superimposed across the pool on NBC’s broadcasts, the one indicating her world record pace. As hard as she swims, it remains just out of range of her fingertips. In her core events, Ledecky still can outswim most or all of her opponents, but she can’t beat 2016 Ledecky.

But at these Games, she had a fight on her hands just to get to the medal stand. The rest of the world has caught up to her, and on Saturday, even in her signature event, she never could quite shake Titmus. The young Aussie stalked her throughout the race, lurking within a body length over the first half, drifting to a body length and a half around the 600-meter mark, then mounting a furious charge to pull closer, closer, closer - until she ran out of pool.

“I could see her the whole way. I tried to keep tabs on her,” Ledecky said. “I tried to inch my way out a little bit each 50 . . . I knew I had to have a little gap because if we were neck and neck in the last 100, I know she has that finish.”

The pain on Ledecky’s face at the end revealed a reality about distance freestyle: Her longevity in the game is as impressive as her prowess. Put simply: Elite distance swimmers simply aren’t meant to last as long as she has.

Janet Evans, who before Ledecky came along was considered the greatest American female distance freestyler in history, won her last international medal in 1994 at age 23, competed in the Atlanta 1996 Games at age 24, then was essentially finished as an elite swimmer.

Brooke Bennett won gold for Team USA in Atlanta at age 16 and two more in Sydney in 2000 at age 20, but in 2004, at age 24, she failed to make the U.S. team and never swam in another major international meet.

Rebecca Adlington, the 2008 gold medalist in women’s 800 free at age 19, was 23 four years later when a 15-year-old Ledecky upset her for the gold in London. Adlington would never swim in a major international meet again.

For Ledecky to have remained not only competitive but unbeatable at the longest distances is remarkable if not unprecedented. It is far more common for older female swimmers to remain elite in sprints - as seen most vividly when Dara Torres won three medals in Beijing in 2008 at age 40.

But the aerobic systems required to power distance swimmers through 10,000 yards a day in practice, let alone 2,100 meters of racing in a single day, as Ledecky pulled off on day three of the Olympic meet, become more difficult to maintain in the mid-20s.

Ledecky will be 27 in Paris. She will be 31 in Los Angeles in 2028, if she sticks around that long. It is likely no one else would even be able to wrap their mind around such a thing, or put their body through it. But Katie Ledecky, as she showed again Saturday, is not like anyone else.

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