Ledecky and Hosszú sparkle in the Rio 2016 pool

Winning four golds and five medals, the USA’s Katie Ledecky completed a historic 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle hat-trick, breaking two world records in the process. Not far behind was Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú, who lived up to her nickname of the “Iron Lady” by negotiating a punishing schedule to pick up three golds and four medals in total, setting world and Olympic records in the two individual medleys.

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Hosszú won the first of her golds on the opening day, smashing the individual 400m medley world record to claim her maiden Olympic title. Australia took the other gold of the day, retaining their 4x100m freestyle title, while Refugee Olympic Team member Yusra Mardini won the hearts of the Rio crowd with her performance in the 100m butterfly heats.

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Very warm favourites for gold, the Australians successfully defended their 4x100m crown thanks in no small part to sisters Cate and Bronte Campbell. The USA led at the halfway stage, only for Bronte to reel in Dana Vollmer on a storming third leg. Sibling Cate, who swam a 100m freestyle world record of 52.06 a few weeks before the Games, then completed the job against American teenager Katie Ledecky. In pocketing the gold, the victorious Aussies posted a new world record of 3:30.65, eclipsing the previous best they themselves set in 2014. The USA took silver and Canada bronze.

Urged on by her husband and coach Shane Tusup, the 27-year-old Hosszú set a world record of her own in the 400m medley, swimming 4:26.36 to smash the previous mark by more than two seconds and win her maiden Olympic title by a margin of more than five seconds from Maya DiRado of the USA. Spain’s Mireia Belmonte beat Great Britain’s Hannah Miley to the touch to win bronze. “I’ve been chasing that world record for some time now,” said the five-time Hungarian world champion. “It’s been over seven years that I have been thinking about it. I feel like I proved myself, not just to other people but to myself. A lot of people thought I would break under the pressure but it was just fun.”

Meanwhile, Yusra Mardini of Syria became the first member of the Refugee Olympic Team to compete at Rio 2016 when she took to the water for the 100m butterfly heats. Receiving the enthusiastic support of the fans of the fans, Mardini won her heat and finished 41st overall. The 18-year-old Syrian fled her war-torn country in 2015, completing her hazardous journey to Greece in a crammed dinghy, which broke down, forcing her and her sister, who is also a swimmer, to jump into the water and guide it to safety.

Day two: world records for Ledecky and Sjöström

Ledecky made quite an impression in her first individual event in Rio, clocking 3:56.46 in the 400m freestyle final to trim nearly two seconds off her world record. “The goal set after Barcelona 2013 was 3:56 or better. So to see 3:56 was really exciting,” said Ledecky, who extended her unbeaten run in Olympic and World Championship finals to 11. Joining Ledecky on the podium were Great Britain’s Jazmin Carlin and the USA’s Leah Smith. 

In the 100m butterfly final, Sarah Sjöström became the first female Swedish swimmer to win an Olympic title, shaving 16 hundredths of a second off her own world record to win from Canada’s Penny Oleksiak and Dana Vollmer of the USA, a silver medallist with Ledecky in the 4x100m in the day before. 

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“The feeling is totally crazy. I didn’t realise it was a world record. I knew I was the big favourite,” said Sjöström. “I was under pressure, so I tried to focus on no disasters. Before the start I said to myself, it’s just a pool. It’s nothing. I know what to do. I was not so nervous. I was in a good mood today. I knew the 100m butterfly was my big chance.” 

Day three: King and Hosszú take the plaudits

Competing at her first Olympic Games, 19-year-old American Lilly King scooped 100m breaststroke gold, clocking a time of 1:04.93 to hold off Russia’s Yuliya Efimova, with Katie Meili of the USA taking the bronze. “This win tastes special. These are my first Olympic Games and I’m proud to represent the USA,” said King. “Tonight has been so crazy. My life is changing right now. I’m a gold medallist and it’s what I’ve always wanted to be and it’s an incredible feeling.” King’s victory was her country’s first in the event since Megan Quann won gold at Sydney 2000. Defending champion Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania finished well down the field in seventh, over two seconds adrift of King.

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Two days after her 400m medley win, Hosszú added the 100m backstroke gold to her Rio 2016 haul, topping the podium from the USA’s Kathleen Baker, and Canada’s Kylie Masse and China’s Fu Yanhui, who tied for the bronze. Lying sixth at the turn, the Hungarian produced a devastating burst of speed in the final 50m. An hour later, she was back in the pool, swimming an Olympic record 2:07.45 to win her 200m individual medley semi-final. 

“I couldn’t celebrate my 100m backstroke win because I still had another race to go and I tried to stay focused on that,” said Hosszú. “I knew I could win, but I was so tired that I said to the Hungary team before the final that I might end up finishing anywhere from first to eighth.” 

Day four: Ledecky and Hosszú stay on the gold trail 

Ledecky dug deep to beat a quality field and win her second gold of the Games in the 200m freestyle, two days after landing the 400m freestyle title. Victorious in a time of 1:53.73, the American topped the podium from Sjöström and Australia’s Emma McKeon. “That was a really tough race and it hurt really badly,” Ledecky said after willing herself to gold again. “I’m pretty sure that’s the closest I’ve come to throwing up in the middle of a race.”

Hosszú collected her third medal in four days when she touched home first in the 200m individual medley in a new Olympic record time of 2:06.58. Taking silver behind the indefatigable Hungarian was Great Britain’s Siobhan-Marie O’Connor, with DiRado winning bronze for the USA. “I’m so excited to get the gold I can’t even believe it. I’m just very excited,” said Hosszú. “I can’t believe I have three golds. Last year I was aiming to go faster than this and I broke the world record at the World Championships, so I’m not surprised. I’m still excited about getting the gold, though. I can’t believe it. Three gold medals” Amazing!” 

Day five: Spain’s Belmonte makes national history

Mireia Belmonte became the first Spanish woman to claim an Olympic swimming gold when she won a thrilling 200m butterfly final. A double silver medallist at London 2012 in the same event and the 800m freestyle, she went one better in Brazil, touching home 0.03 seconds ahead of Australia’s Madeline Groves and Japan’s reigning world champion Natsumi Hoshi.

Victory was just reward was the 25-year-old Belmonte, who is allergic to chlorine and has to take special medication in order to swim. Admitting to feeling nervous before the final, the Spaniard said she only realised she had won after getting out of the water. “I couldn’t believe it and I still can’t believe it,” she said. “I don’t know how I feel. There are so many emotions. I knew that the second 100m was my strong point. I was really hurting in the last few strokes but I’ve been dreaming of gold all my life and now that dream has come true.”

Freestyle queen Ledecky enjoyed another glorious evening in the pool, helping the USA to victory in the 4x200m freestyle to pocket her third gold of the Rio Games. Australia, who led before Ledecky made her decisive contribution, won the silver and Canada the bronze. The new star of American swimming, Ledecky clocked a time of 1:53.74 for her anchor leg, over a second faster than any other competitor in the field, overhauling Australia’s Tamsin Cook to give a US quartet also featuring Allison Schmitt, Leah Smith and DiRado an ultimately commanding win by more than a second and a half. 

“I was prepared for any circumstance, whether we were ahead or behind,” said Ledecky, explaining how she reeled Cook in. “I just knew that these three girls were going to put me in a good position to close it out, and I knew I could do it. This race was a little different to the 4x100m relay because that was our first race and we were kind of underdogs. With this one we came in as favourites. We knew this was our relay and I think we were really confident.” 

Day six: 100m freestyle gold shared 

Simone Manuel of the USA and Penny Oleksiak of Canada produced a dead heat in the 100m freestyle final, sharing the gold medal in a time of 52.70. It was the first time since Los Angeles 1984 that a women’s swimming gold medal was shared, with Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer of the USA the joint winners on that occasion. The winner of 100m butterfly gold and 200m freestyle silver, Sweden’s Sjöström took the bronze to complete her Rio 2016 medal collection. 

The 20-year-old Manuel and Oleksiak, four years her junior, took full advantage when Australian Cate Campbell’s flagged in the closing metres. Campbell, who set a new world record of 52.06 in Brisbane in early July, led the field with 25 metres remaining but trailed in seventh, while sibling Bronte came in fourth.

While Manuel won her country’s first gold in the most prestigious of all swimming events since Los Angeles 1984, Oleksiak also achieved a little piece of history, having set a junior world record in the semi-finals. Reacting to her gold, the Canadian said: “I saw Simone’s name and thought, ‘OK, I came second’, and then I saw that it said Olympic record beside both names. It’s crazy. No one ties at the Olympics really, but it was great to tie with her. I can’t believe I’ve won a gold medal because these are my first Olympic Games.”

Manuel explained that she had only come to Rio gain some experience and swim as fast as she could. “Just before the start I said to myself that I wanted to make the podium,” she said. “It’s just so huge for me to do even better than that and get the gold and beat the national record. It was a very tight race, and there were only two tenths between first and eighth. Penny is a really nice girl. We met here and we’re two young sprinters. I think it’s good for swimming and in some ways in breaks the stereotypes about sprint swimmers.” 

Japan’s Rie Kaneto beat Russia’s Efimova to the 200m breaststroke title. Kaneto’s time of 2:20.30 was the season’s second fastest in the world, two hundredths outside the time she swam in April. Second at the halfway mark, the Japanese swimmer had moved into the lead by the final turn and held off Efimova in the final 50m to claim gold. The bronze went to China’s Jinglin Shi.

“This was a lifetime ambition,” said Kaneto. “I feel grateful to all the people who supported me and I really hope I have a chance in the near future to respond to their support and thank them. All I want now is to cheer the rest of my team-mates. This medal is definitely the biggest of all the ones I’ve won. It was a lifetime ambition.” Kaneto’s victory marked the end of a sustained run of success in the event for the USA’s swimmers, who had won the last three golds. American hopes were invested in newly crowned 100m breaststroke champion King, who failed to make the final, however. 

Day seven: Ledecky completes memorable hat-trick 

Ledecky starred again on the penultimate day of swimming at Rio 2016, winning the 800m freestyle to complete an individual hat-trick in the stroke, having also won the 200m and 400m titles, not to mention 4x200m freestyle relay gold. In doing so, she bettered her own world record by nearly two seconds, taking it down to 8:04.79. In front from the start, the American teen won by over 11 seconds from Great Britain’s Carlin and Hungary’s Boglarka Kapas, and became the first swimmer to win the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle titles at the same Games since compatriot Debbie Meyer at Mexico City 1968.

DiRado brought Team USA further joy when she took the honours in the 200m backstroke final, depriving Hosszú of a fourth gold. Canada’s Hilary Caldwell completed the podium. The 23-year-old American trailed the “Iron Lady” all the way before closing the gap in the final metres and just getting the touch ahead of her to win by six hundredths of a second. 

In claiming a second gold of the week, and her fourth medal of Rio 2016, DiRado ended her swimming career in style. The American, who will now devote her considerable energies to her job as a management consultant, said: “It’s indescribable. Just pure joy and surprise and excitement. That was my last race ever and I just won a gold medal.” Commenting on her fourth medal of the week, Hosszú said: “I haven’t been on the podium before, and I was able to be on the podium four times and three times on top, so I don’t think I could have done any better.” 

Day eight: Blume takes 50m title, medley relay gold for USA

The final evening in the pool saw Denmark’s Pernille Blume take the 50m freestyle title in a time of 24.07, two hundredths faster than the USA’s Simone Manuel, with Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus in third. Blume’s gold was her country’s first in swimming since Los Angeles 1984. Defending champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands finished sixth. 

The gold and silver medallists were back in the pool 40 minutes later for the 4x100m medley relay final, with Manuel teaming up with Lilly King, Dana Vollmer and Kathleen Baker to claim gold in a time of 3:53.13 from the Australian four of Emily Seebohm, Taylor McKeown, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell. The Danish quartet of Blume, Mie Nielsen, Rikke Moller Pedersen and Jeanette Ottesen posted a European record of 3:35.01 in taking bronze, just one hundredth behind the Australians.