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In Rio Olympics, Swimmers Katie Ledecky And Michael Phelps Win Gold

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

What a night it was for U.S. swimmers at the Olympics in Rio. Nineteen-year-old Katie Ledecky and 31-year-old Michael Phelps might be at very different points in their careers. Ledecky is just taking off. Phelps, whose name we've heard for so long - his career is beginning to wind down. But both of them dazzled last night, and NPR's Tom Goldman was at the Aquatic Stadium in Rio taking it all in. He's on the line with us.

Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So I guess the big question - was anyone actually in the swimming pool with Katie Ledecky?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

GREENE: It looked like she was alone on television.

GOLDMAN: She was. She was. And we've seen it a lot, you know, throughout the last three or four years. They quickly become a race against the clock. For the better part of this race, she was just out there swimming alone along with that superimposed world record line on the TV screen. And she beat everyone - her competitors and the line. She beat her own world record in the 400 by nearly two seconds. And that's the 12th career world record by a 19 year old.

GREENE: Wow.

GOLDMAN: David, who does that?

GREENE: That's crazy.

GOLDMAN: I was actually trying to think of a comparable athlete, someone who simply outpaces the competition like this. And I came up with one - Secretariat, the great thoroughbred. Remember that Belmont Stakes back in 1973? Secretariat won by a surreal 31 lengths. That's what it's like to watch Katie Ledecky.

GREENE: Yeah. Some say Secretariat - I mean, the greatest of all time.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

GREENE: So she wins the 400-meter freestyle last night. She's 19 years old. You know, we saw her four years ago medal in the Olympics at 15. But she's going to have more races in Rio and then years beyond this.

GOLDMAN: Way beyond. The American who took the bronze in this race, Leah Smith - a distant bronze - said we'll probably be seeing Katie Ledecky in the 2024 Games.

GREENE: How old will you and I be by then (laughter)?

GOLDMAN: I don't want to even think about it.

GREENE: I mean, when it's - right.

GOLDMAN: That's two Olympics away. Swimming aficionados now are probably going to correct me here. But, you know, David, I can't think of a female swimmer as dominant or as potentially dominant. You know, the men have had Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz - guys who needed wheelbarrows to hold all their medals.

GREENE: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: I can't think of a similar woman until now. Katie Ledecky is special. That medal haul is going to come over the coming years. You know, it's just going to get better and better, I think.

GREENE: Well, special indeed. Well, let's turn to Michael Phelps now. He was in the really hotly contested 4x100-meter freestyle relay. And...

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

GREENE: ...I mean, it was a - quite a night for him too.

GOLDMAN: It was. You know, if ever an athlete could settle and rest on considerable laurels, it's him. Going into the race, he had 22 total medals, 18 gold, most of all time. But man, he was a man on fire. He swam the second leg. When the starter touched the wall and Phelps dived in, the U.S. was behind. Hundred meters later, U.S. was ahead, and the Americans kept the lead the rest of the way. They beat their archrival France, which won the race four years ago at the London Olympics. And Phelps says he swam the fastest 100 freestyle in his career. That's saying a lot because it's a special career.

GREENE: Yeah. It sounds like the atmosphere last night that you were taking in - I mean, not a swim even, more like a like a Roman coliseum or something.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) It was amazing. As soon as the teams came onto the pool deck, the crowd started roaring. And I mean roaring. This was a hugely anticipated race because it was wide open. The U.S., France, Australia were considered medal favorites with no real good bet on who'd win. And afterwards, even Phelps talked about the electricity. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL PHELPS: I was going to say, when I was on the block, I honestly felt my heart was going to explode out of my chest. Like, I was so hyped tonight and so excited. And to hear the stands as loud it was - I mean, that was wild. I don't know if I've ever heard something like that at a meet.

GOLDMAN: You know, David, athletes talk about blocking out the noise, the distractions. Well, it sounds like Phelps and his buddies got high octane fuel from that crowd.

GREENE: It sure does. All right, NPR's Tom Goldman covering the Olympics for us in Rio. Thanks, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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