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Why Katie Ledecky has a grueling Olympic 'double' that her male counterparts don't

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TOKYO — At around 10:43 here on Wednesday morning, Katie Ledecky will touch the north wall of the Tokyo Aquatics Center pool. Her head will pop out of the water and turn. Her eyes will search a scoreboard for her name, and for a number that will tell her what color Olympic medal she has just won. And her brain will have approximately zero minutes to process what she sees.

She will climb out of the pool, retrieve her mask and Olympic credential, navigate post-race “hubbub around the Olympics,” warm down, and then, almost immediately, prepare to swim again. Ledecky will go for gold in the 200-meter freestyle and 1500-meter freestyle about 70 minutes apart on her most grueling morning of these Games.

It’s a double that, as Ledecky pointed out months ago, male swimmers don’t have to deal with. The men’s and women’s swimming programs are identical for the first time ever at these Olympics. And yet the men’s 200, 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle finals are all on separate days.

“I don’t know how much control I have over the schedule, but I do think the men have it a little bit easier,” Ledecky said with a smile last month at U.S. Olympic trials. “I don’t know if they’ll ever change it. We’ll see. I mean, I’m game for whatever.”

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Katie Ledecky of Team United States reacts after competing in the Women's 200m Freestyle Semifinal on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Katie Ledecky of Team United States reacts after competing in the Women's 200m Freestyle Semifinal on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The men’s and women’s schedules rarely mirror each other at major swim meets, but they’re constructed in large part to avoid this type of conflict. The 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly, for example, would never be back-to-back. The 100-meter freestyle finals and 4x100 medley relays are on different days. Some elite swimmers have range over multiple strokes and distances, but overlap is generally predictable. A 1500-meter freestyler will almost never swim the 50-meter free, the 100-meter backstroke or the 200-meter breaststroke, or really any non-freestyle event in those ranges.

FINA, in response to questions from Yahoo Sports, essentially argued that 200-meter free belongs on that list. The 1500, a FINA spokesperson said, when it was added to the Olympics for Tokyo, “has been placed in a position that does not interfere with the ability to compete in the 400m and 800m freestyle events that were already on the Olympic program.”

“The schedule is designed to avoid ‘natural’ doubles,” the FINA spokesperson said. “It is unusual for a swimmer to be a finalist in both the 200m freestyle (an event that takes less than two minutes) and the 1500m freestyle (an event that takes more than 15 minutes). Ms. Ledecky is an unusually talented athlete who can compete at the highest level in both events.”

In other words, Ledecky’s conflict is a consequence of her own unnatural greatness.

Ledecky, to be clear, isn’t complaining. “It'll be a good challenge,” she said Tuesday. “I've trained for it, I've been expecting it, I've known the schedule for a while now. I love both the 200 and the mile, so I'm doing both.”

And so, after she swims four lengths of the pool, likely stroke for stroke with Australia’s Ariarne Titmus once again, Titmus will react, then do media, then cherish her medal.

Ledecky, if she repeats her routine from trials last month, will breeze through or skip a TV interview. She’ll beeline toward the warm-down pool and swim for 15-20 minutes. She’ll return to the competition pool for a medal ceremony. She’ll eat — perhaps a banana — and drink — chocolate milk and water — as she goes. She’ll then head back to the warm-down pool for more moderate swimming, just to stay moving. She’ll try to be efficient “while still walking slowly,” so as to not “exert any more energy than I [need] to.”

And then, without a proper warmup, she’ll swim a mile, likely faster than any other woman ever has. She’ll win either her first or second gold medal of these Games. And her unprecedented Olympic day will nestle into history books.

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