The 3:57.36 time that Ledecky swam in the 400m freestyle final was, in fact, the best that she's ever produced outside of her world record (3:56.46). Titmus (3:56.69), just 0.23 outside the world record, was simply better. Full stop.
Americans, on social media in particular, have been losing their minds over Titmus beating Ledecky, apparently forgetting that the Aussie also beat the US great over 400m at the 2019 world championships.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Pat Forde offered a bit of cool-headed context.
Some in the US media believe that Titmus had Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medallist and the defending 400m champion, spooked before their race.
"Her eyes gave her away, though, belying a trepidation inconsistent with arguably the most dominant female swimmer in history," the San Diego Union Tribune's Mark Ziegler wrote.
"She looked nervous, anxious, tense, concerned. Justifiably so, it turned out. Four minutes later, her nearly decade-long reign over distance swimming had been usurped by a 20-year-old from the Australian island of Tasmania."
Ledecky's legacy is being dissected in the wake of her defeat; the first time that she's lost an individual event at the Olympics.
"Ledecky has been more admired than beloved; she has been almost as dominant as Simone Biles but not nearly as fun to watch," Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg wrote.
"In Rio, she won this race by almost five seconds, which is a lifetime. The gap between Ledecky and silver medallist Jazz Carlin was wider than between silver and seventh place.
"It was absurd, but once she gets so far ahead that she is basically alone on your television screen, what else is there to say?"
US sports writers were mightily impressed with how Titmus brought Ledecky back to earth.
"Australia's Ariarne Titmus — nicknamed the "Terminator" — lived up to her billing when she chased down Ledecky in the 400 freestyle to win one of the most anticipated races of the Summer Games," the Associated Press' Paul Newberry wrote.
"For the first time in her brilliant Olympic career, Ledecky felt the sting of defeat, dished out by a rival from Down Under who made it clear she was not intimidated by the American star."
Ledecky herself was gracious, praising the Aussie's race.
"I fought tooth and nail," Ledecky said. "She definitely swam a really smart race. She was really controlled up front. I felt pretty smooth and strong going out and flipped at the 300 and it was like, 'Oh, she's right there'."
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