No nation is more consistent, or dominant, on the Olympic stage -- or, rather, in the pool -- than the United States. The U.S. has finished atop the pool ledger in golds and overall medals in every Olympics since 1972.
With the first weekend of 2020 Tokyo Olympics behind us, that pace is set to continue -- and it's been made possible thanks to what was historically the best start in the storied history of Team USA swimming. The men and women representing the U.S. earned eight medals over the opening weekend, including six on Sunday in Japan -- an opening-day American Olympic swimming record.
No Michael Phelps, no Ryan Lochte -- no problem.
Four times prior (1972, 1984, 2004, 2008) the U.S. had won five medals on its first day of competition, yet Team USA has somehow one-upped itself to this point. Monday morning in Tokyo (reminder: Japan is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, which means Sunday-night events on American television are Monday events in Japan) brought another gold and silver to the haul. The gold belonged to the men's 4x100 freestyle relay team, which in fact was a mild surprise.
The United States was not a huge favorite heading into the 4x100, but Caeleb Dressel, Blake Pieroni, Bowe Becker and Zach Apple blazed to a 3:08.97 finish to ensure the American men captured gold, repeating the feat from 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Dressel and Pieroni were on that 2016 gold medal-winning team, which also included Phelps. The 4x100 is venerable event, a race that is a big point of pride for Team USA. Phelps said on TV Sunday that these kind of wins collectively push the spirit of all American swimmers to go that much harder in the pool. It's a rallying point.
And yet, this showing shouldn't be a shock. For example, either the men or women on Team USA (and often times both) have medaled in the 4x100 every Olympics over the past 109 years. On the other hand, Emma Wyant and Hali Flickinger medaling in the women's 400 IM marked the first time the United States had at least two people on the podium for that event since 1968.
There's been a little something of everything for the U.S. so far.
For many in the United States, gauging success in the Summer Olympics mostly comes down to performance in three sports: swimming, gymnastics and track. The swimmers -- whose events are fully underway at these Games -- are proving once more that the United States is more robust in the water than any other nation.
To recap, here's everyone who took a medal in the past two days:
- Chase Kalisz won gold in the 400-meter individual medley, one-upping his silver performance from Rio in 2016 and putting the U.S. back on top in an event it's taken gold in during every Olympics since 1996 -- except in 2016, when Kalisz finished second.
- Jay Litherland finished less than a second behind Kalisz in the 400 IM to capture silver.
- On the women's side, 19-year-old Emma Wyant won silver in the 400 IM.
- Hali Flickinger was next behind Wyant and won bronze in the 400 IM.
- Kieran Smith, who came on strong during June's Olympic trials, had a huge showing to snatch bronze in the 400-meter freestyle.
- The women's 4x100 freestyle relay team of Erika Brown, Abbey Weitzeil, Natalie Hinds and Simone Manuel's touched in 3:32.81, finishing .03 behind Canada to earn bronze. (Australia's heavily favored quartet was favored for a reason: the Aussies' gold medal-winning swim of 3:29.69 set a world record.)
- The men's 4x100 team held off Italy and Australia on Monday morning to win gold and retain the Olympic title from 2016.
- Katie Ledecky took silver Monday morning in the 400 freestyle with a time of 3:57.36.
Now, let's get to Ledecky. Here's anything but an oh-by-the-way: the most dominant swimmer in the world officially has a rival.
The Olympics always require the hype machine, and most athletes get fed through it either for their historic dominance or because there's a worthy opponent to pin them against. Ledecky, to the surprise of some, gets both here in 2021.
Australia's Ariarne Titmus was promoted all weekend as a true foil to Ledecky. The 400 freestyle matched the hype, as Titmus-vs.-Ledecky gave the Olympics its most riveting event so far. The 19-year-old Aussie caught Ledecky on the penultimate turn of the race, which turned into, statistically, the greatest 400-meter freestyle in women's history. Titmus touched in 3:56.69, which is the second-fastest on record. (Ledecky's 2016 Rio swim of 3:56.46 remains the world record.),
Here's how great that 400 was, though: Ledecky's time of 3:57.36 was only .67 behind Titmus -- and good enough for the THIRD-best time ever. An epic race.
It was Ledecky's first loss in individual competition in her Olympic career. But the 400 free has proven to be near-impossible to win in consecutive Olympiads; the only other time a woman repeated to win gold in this event came in 1924 and 1928. Consider this: the top 10 400-meter times in world history on the women's side belong only to Ledecky (who has seven) and Titmus (three).
"I can't be disappointed with that, it was a good time for me," Ledecky said on NBC after the race. "Awesome swim by her."
What's even better is that, while swimming now has a trans-Pacific rivalry it could really use, Titmus and Ledecky view each other as healthy competition. Something swimming needs.
"We're really friendly, and she said she couldn't have done it without me, and I could say the same about her," Ledecky said. "She's really pushed me. I think it's great for the sport."
Ledecky and Titmus should find themselves matched again Tuesday night with a gold on the line in the 200 free. Titmus will be favored to win, but Ledecky, coming off the first individual loss of her Olympic life, will have all the fuel necessary.
And for as great as the opening days were, Team USA was practically a knuckle-length from adding one more. The 100 fly saw the up-and-coming 18-year-old Torri Huske, who looks to have a bright future, agonizingly miss out on the podium by .01 seconds. In the men's 100 fly, Michael Andrew's Olympic debut for the United States also ended in a fourth-place finish, as he touched in 58.84, .51 seconds behind the bronze-medal pace.
Don't expect the U.S.'s pool supremacy to slow. Monday night's television viewing in the United States could bring gold medals for Ryan Murphy, the reigning gold medal winner in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. There's also a second straight gold medal in the 100 fly up for Lilly King's taking. And another fresh face, 19-year-old Regan Smith, set an Olympic record in her semifinal heat, meaning, at minimum, it's looking like four more medals are going to the red, white and blue in less than 24 hours.