Ariarne Titmus: How Olympic Gold Medalist Was Inspired by Rival Katie Ledecky

What a moment: Ariarne Titmus, Olympic champion

How good was Ariarne Titmus’ dive?

No, seriously, how good was it? Where does it rank with some of Australians’ great Olympic achievements over the years?

They say that in sports it is impossible to compare different eras. How can you rate a 1920s footballer or cricketer against a 2020 footballer? That is not possible, because the playing fields are not flat.

Different rules, different equipment, different food… over the years it’s a whole new ball game.

But the Olympics is a completely different animal.

Different eras can be compared because the starting point remains the same year after year.

It’s the Olympics, the pinnacle of sport, and that gives you the chance to become great once every four years (or in this case five years).

Miss your chance and you may not get another one. Unlike footy or cricket or tennis, it’s not again next week or even next year.

And with that comes tremendous pressure.

Just going to the Olympics is an achievement in itself. Getting to the finals of an event is huge. Winning is out of this world.

Australia has produced some of the greatest Olympic champions of all time. Boy Charlton, Dawn Fraser, Betty Cuthbert, Murray Rose, Herb Elliott, Shane Gould, Grant Hackett, Anna Meares – all names that are next to the best of the best.

But sometimes elements have been added that make the seemingly impossible even more difficult.

In 1996, Kieren Perkins was the biggest name in Australian sport. The reigning Olympic champion in the 1500m freestyle was described as ‘Australia’s Michael Jordan’ by Sports Illustrated magazine.

But Perkins arrived on top of a slump at the Atlanta Games. He just cleared the Australian team as the number two 1500m swimmer behind Daniel Kowalski.

His form did not appear to have improved by the time the 1500m heats were held, and he entered the final as the slowest qualifier.

It is now history that Perkins led from start to finish in lane eight to take the most celebrated win in Australian swimming history.

That was a special victory.

Four years later, another came for centuries.

No one in the history of Australian sport has ever been under more pressure than Cathy Freeman on September 25, 2000.

As the face of the Sydney Games, a symbol of national reconciliation and favorite to win the women’s 400m, she carried the hopes of 20 million people on her back as she ran that unforgettable lap of the Olympic Stadium.

Anyone who was there will never forget the sight of that little figure in a one-piece running suit circling the track, her every step illuminated by thousands of camera flashes before she crossed the line first and sank to the ground in shock.

It doesn’t get more special than that.

Ariarne Titmus is now getting even more pressure after her amazing win

Ariarne Titmus is now getting even more pressure after her amazing win

If the pressure on Freeman was immense in Sydney, it was only a minute less for Ian Thorpe, who at the age of 17 was expected to dominate the pool in his first Olympics.

He did not disappoint, winning Australia’s first gold medal at the Games on the opening night of the competition and winning the 400m freestyle in world record time.

But the best was yet to come. In the run-up to the Games, extroverted American swimmer Gary Hall Jr. predicted that the US would “beat up the Australians like guitars” in the pool.

Less than an hour after winning the 400m, Thorpe lined up against Hall to anchor the 4x100m freestyle men’s relay.

The US had never lost the event in their history and while the top three Australians, Michael Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus had gotten off to a blistering start, Hall Jr. half a body length for Thorpe when they went home.

With 25 yards to go, Hall was still leading, but Thorpe dragged him back with every stroke, leveling up two yards to go and blasting at the wall in world record time as his teammates played air guitars to a frenzied crowd.

More than special.

How does Ariarne Titmus compare to any of those?

Let’s see.

At age 20, she swam in her first Olympics against Katie Ledecky, the greatest female middle-distance swimmer in history; a 24-year veteran of two Olympic Games with five Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals, as well as three world records to her name.

In 12 years, Ledecky had only been beaten once in 200m, 400m, 800m or 1500m – by Titmus in the 400m freestyle at the 2019 World Championships – and that was when she was suffering from a virus.

It was a shocking loss that the Americans quickly wrote off, and while the calmly spoken Ledecky isn’t one to make rash predictions (with her track record, she doesn’t have to), her teammate, breaststroke champion Lilly King went so far as to predict that the American women would win every individual event at the Tokyo Aquatic Center.

While those words wouldn’t have disturbed the icy Titmus, her preparation, like all the other participants in Tokyo, was far from ideal.

After swimming in the semi-finals, she revealed that it was the first time she had gone through normal marshalling procedure for the race in over a year.

Titmus faced unique challenges in Tokyo - but is now in special company, a champion in his own right

Titmus faced unique challenges in Tokyo – but is now in special company, a champion in his own right

More disturbing was the fact that her family couldn’t be in Tokyo to cheer her on. The parents and siblings of all Olympic athletes support them every step of the way, but not all have sacrificed the Titmus’s, who drove their lives from Tasmania so that Ariarne could receive top class international coaching in Queensland.

Due to Covid restrictions, her parents, sister, grandparents and friend were able to get the closest to Tokyo, a TV screen in a hotel room in Noosa.

However, her coach Dean Boxall was poolside and gave the best victory dance an Australian coach had seen since Laurie Lawrence went crazy after Duncan Armstrong’s win in Seoul ’88.

Duncan Armstrong, now there was a special performance.

In fact, they all have been. They have to be to win Olympic gold.

Ask Dawn or Cathy or Kieren or Thorpie – and starting today you can ask Arnie too.

She is in special company.