There were plenty of stories going into the 2016 Summer Olympics. The fastest man in the world was running an Olympic track for the last time, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team was looking to make a huge statement, people worried about Zika and crime, and all the other things that could go wrong over the two weeks in Brazil. All that, and Michael Phelps was going to show up, probably win a few more gold medals, and then swim away into the sunset or whatever the greatest olympian ever is supposed to do. That was the plan, the man with a room filled with gold medals was going to show us how it was done one last time.
Yet somehow, maybe because so much of the focus was on one single swimmer going into Rio, the entire American swim team has made this Olympics about them as a unit. From Lilly King turning a finger wave into a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke, to Phelps teaming with Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas and a bleach haired Ryan Lochte to win the 4x200m freestyle relay, to Katie Ledecky making her own bid for Olympic immortality, simply dominating the 400-meter freestyle, winning a gold and breaking world records along the way. Then last night, Ledecky again, another gold with the women’s team, this time in the 4×200 freestyle relay. All told, the U.S. swimmers have claimed medals in 18 of the 20 events so far. That’s the kind of overall team dominance spread all across a sport that you just don’t get to see very often.
With yesterday’s victory, Ledecky, along with the rest of her squad members, Allison Schmitt, Leah Smith and Maya DiRado, added another reason why the American program is heads and tails above the rest, but it was Ledecky closing out the victory that showed exactly how great she truly is. With the Americans trailing after the first three legs, it was Ledecky who chased down Australia’s Tamsin Cook, then pulled away so far that there was the length of another swimmer between gold and silver. It was a team effort, but ultimately it was Ledecky going lights out that showed yet again that in 2016, the American swim team is performing on a level we rarely see from teams in any sport. And while Phelps retiring will leave a huge hole, the future is still very bright.