TOKYO — American men won gold medals in two very different freestyle distances on Thursday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, and Katie Ledecky earned a silver medal anchoring the United States 4×200-meter freestyle relay team.
Ledecky, swimming the final leg, entered the pool a distant third place as China and Australia looked to be in a two-team race. But Ledecky swam the fastest leg in the event, and the United States finished 0.40 seconds behind China’s world-record time.
“It’s just so easy to get up for a Team U.S.A. relay, so I wasn’t as nervous, maybe,” Ledecky said, surrounded by teammates, all draped in silver medals. “I just knew I was going to let it go and go for it, each lap of that race.”
It capped a big day for the Americans, as Caeleb Dressel won his first Olympic gold medal for an individual race on Thursday, setting an Olympic record of 47.02 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle and beating out rival Kyle Chalmers of Australia by six-hundredths of a second.
Dressel sprang out of the blocks six-hundredths of a second faster than Chalmers — the final margin at the finish. Dressel and Chalmers swam two lanes apart.
“I could actually see him in my peripherals, I knew he was right there,” Dressel said. “I couldn’t see him, but you can see disturbances in the water. I knew — who else would it be besides Kyle?”
As the announcer blared “new Olympic record,” Dressel turned and looked at the time and, beaming, climbed up on the lane rope. He hoisted both arms in jubilation and hung there for a moment, smiling, a long pause on top that made you wonder if somebody was going to tell him it was time to get off.
“I thought I executed my race plan perfectly,” he said. “I couldn’t change anything. That’s how I felt in that moment.”
Bobby Finke, another Floridian, won the Olympic 800-meter freestyle in different fashion, coming from behind in the last lap to beat Italy’s Gregorio Paltrinieri. It was a surprise even to Finke, 21, who later said he had “no idea” he would win.
His victory was the first for an American man in an Olympic distance race since 1984.
Paltrinieri arrived with one of the 10 best times in history, but he had struggled in Tokyo and was relegated to an outside lane for the final. He jumped out to the early lead, and held it through 14 of the race’s 16 laps.
The pack pulled closer with each turn, and Finke was fourth with 100 meters to go. He surged in the final 50 meters, swimming the last leg in 26.39 seconds, 1.65 seconds faster than Paltrinieri.
Finke finished in 7 minutes 41.87 seconds, a quarter-second ahead of Paltrinieri, who held on for silver. Mykhailo Romanchuk of Ukraine captured the bronze. The 800 was the first such race for men since 1904.
Ledecky continued her interesting Olympic odyssey by earning a second silver medal in Tokyo with teammates Allison Schmitt, Paige Madden and Kathryn McLaughlin.
Ledecky took to the water in third, but Ledecky’s time of 1:53.76 was the fastest leg of the race for any team. She raced past Australia to nearly catch China, claiming silver for the United States.
The usual strategy, she said afterward, is to pace yourself through the first 100 meters, saving a dose of energy for the final sprint to the finish. Ledecky hit the water at full speed.
“I’ve had enough experience at that relay to know that even when I try to pull back that first 100, it’s still really fast and I can still come home,” she said. “So I just kind of let it go.”
Australia was a big favorite with Ariarne Titmus, who won the individual 200 and 400 freestyles, ahead of Ledecky both times.
The Aussies came to Tokyo looking to lower the world record of 7:41.50 that it established in 2019. Australia’s swimmers had already won the 4×100 free relay on Sunday, setting a world record.
In Tokyo, so far, Ledecky has a gold and two silver medals, plus a fifth-place finish. She has spent a career raising gold-or-bust expectations, and is now swimming with the curse of having to explain that she does not win every race.
Ledecky’s come-from-behind leg, faster than any rivals and lifting her team, showed that there would be no shame in silver.