TOKYO — Katie Ledecky failed here on Wednesday, and then, 71 minutes after perhaps the most disappointing swim of her glittering international career, she dove into the pool again and made history.
Hours after failing to medal for the first time at a major international meet, Ledecky won the first-ever women’s 1500-meter freestyle at the Olympics. She swam 30 laps of the Tokyo Aquatics Center pool in 15:37.34, more than four seconds ahead of fellow American Erica Sullivan, to claim her first gold of these Games.
Sullivan, a 20-year-old from Nevada, claimed Silver. Germany’s Sarah Kohler won bronze.
When it was over, Ledecky was near tears.
"Yeah, just after the 200, I knew I had to turn the page very quickly," Ledecky said. "And in the warmdown pool, I was just thinking of my family, and kinda each stroke, I was thinking of my grandparents, [getting emotional], and they're the toughest four people I know, and that's what helped me get through that."
The event, which Ledecky all but owns, hadn’t been on the Olympic program until its addition this year. Ledecky surely would’ve won it five years ago in Rio. She won it at worlds in 2017, and set the still-standing world record in 2018. She’d never lost it in a competitive final. Her dominance was so thorough, so seemingly inevitable that many of her competitors don’t even think they have a chance to beat her.
And yet, at least to outsiders, doubt accompanied her to the blocks here on Wednesday, because her 200-meter freestyle loss had been so uncharacteristic. It was her first non-medal swim in 36 tries at a major international meet. Her perfection at the longer distance seemed secure, but could we be sure?
Doubt evaporated gradually over the mile-long grind. Ledecky led from the jump, and then extended her lead, and extended it further. Almost two full seconds at the 250. Almost three full seconds at the 800. More than four full seconds at the 1100.
China’s Jianjiahe Wang, Italy’s Simona Quadarella and Kohler tried to stay within touching distance. Ledecky never let them within a body length. Quadarella and Wang fell off. Sullivan came on over the back half of the race and out-touched Kohler for silver.
"I think people maybe feel bad for me, I'm not winning everything, and whatever," Ledecky said. "But I want people to be more concerned about other things going on in the world, people that are truly suffering. And I'm just proud to bring home a gold medal to Team USA."
Ledecky’s final individual event of the Tokyo Olympics will be the 800-meter freestyle, and there, she’ll be favored to win a second gold medal.
More from Yahoo Sports: