However, the road to that embrace was a long-time coming in the eyes of thousands of female freestylers before them.
Before the events of 2021, countless icons in women’s distance freestyle—including Patty Carreto, Debbie Meyer, Jo Ann Harshbarger, Janet Evans and more—had never got their Olympic chance in the event. While countless races would get added to the women’s swimming Olympic schedule over the decades, the 1500 free remained the event that was on the outside looking in.
“We wanted things to change and there hadn’t been a 1500 for so long,” Sullivan said.
Finally, in June 2017, the International Olympic Committee made it official: The women’s 1500 free would be coming to Tokyo.
“Just seeing that made me really happy,” Ledecky said. “I started adjusting my training and kind of plotting out what that might look like to swim that race in Tokyo. I was really happy it was added and it was just a really long-time coming.
“There were so many female athletes who didn’t have that opportunity to swim that race [at the Olympics], I definitely wanted to make sure Team USA got started on the right note. I wanted to do my part, and I think a lot of other swimmers wanted to do their part too.
“I felt hopeful,” Sullivan said of her reaction to hearing the IOC’s decision. “The fact that, for me, I would even have a chance to make the team in the 1500 made me very optimistic at the time. Ron [Aitken, her coach at Sandpipers of Nevada] and I looked at it, and he actually was the one who told me about it. Then it was like, ‘I really have a shot of making it in this event.’”
The Road to Tokyo
Ledecky and Sullivan entered the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming as the first and third seeds respectively. While Ledecky’s seed time put her as a runaway favorite in Omaha, there were only a few seconds separating the second, third and fourth seeds. As always, only the top two finishers at Trials would be eligible for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
“Before the Trials [final] race, I turned to everyone in the ready room and was like, ‘we are making history, we are the first ones to swim this event at Trials,’” Ledecky said. “It’s little things like that that I think we all appreciated in those moments.”
The eight athletes took Ledecky’s message, left their chairs in the ready room and made their way on deck – seeing the darkness of the entrance tunnel unveil itself to the brightness of neon Trials signs, thousands of flashing cameras and the most intimidating pool in the United States.
Ledecky and Sullivan took the blocks, clapped their hands three times—almost in complete synchronicity—and dove in for the first ever Trials 1500 free.
They held a steady 1-2 positioning throughout the majority of the race. Ledecky lived up to Ledecky-standard while Sullivan blocked off a late push from her Sandpipers of Nevada (and eventual Olympic) teammate Katie Grimes for second.
Ledecky clocked a 15:40.50, Sullivan clocked a 15:51.18. The two were officially the first American women to qualify for the Olympics in the event.
“Thank God,” Sullivan reacted. “It was such a feeling of relief. Trials is a long series of days that, when I finally made the team and had my spot secured, it was definitely like a ‘thank-the-heavens’ type of thing.”
The two packed their bags and headed to the team’s training camp in Hawaii for the U.S. Olympic Team training camp. At training camp, the two stuck to what got them there – Ledecky remained training under U.S. Olympic Women’s Team Head Coach and her Stanford coach Greg Meehan while Sullivan trained with her Sandpiper and Olympic teammates Grimes and Bella Sims.
There were no discussions between the two on how they would approach the race in Tokyo, nor around the historical aspect of swimming in the event’s Olympic debut, there was only a shared, unspoken work ethic and determination that fueled their pursuit to make history.
“I think, in the days leading up to the race, I was thinking of everyone who didn’t have this opportunity,” Ledecky recalled. “I was getting texts from some of those people like Debbie Meyer, Chris von Saltza Olmstead, some of these women from over the years who have really encouraged me and helped get me here.”
There were five heats of prelims in the women’s 1500 free in Tokyo. Sullivan was the first American up to swim the event, competing in the fourth heat, and swam a 15:46.67 to win her heat. Given that the event had only had four heats ever at the time, Sullivan’s performance also set an Olympic record in the event. Just one heat later, Ledecky posted a 15:35.35 to claim top seed in the finals and produce an all-time Erica Sullivan tweet:
Fun fact: I had the Olympic record for 16 minutes. @katieledecky put in the work and threw down the heat after. But I’ll proceed to flex my 16 minutes
— Erica Sullivan (@erica_sully) July 27, 2021
The lightheartedness quickly faded as the two looked ahead to the final – Ledecky would soon be approaching her busiest finals session of the Tokyo Olympics while Sullivan was preparing for her first ever opportunity to medal on the Olympic stage.
“I just kind of didn’t want to mess it up,” Ledecky said. “I had been waiting for that moment [swimming in the 1500 free final] and knew there were a lot of people before me didn’t have that opportunity.
“I had to swim the final of that about an hour after the 200 free final that didn’t quite go the way I had hoped, so it was a little more challenging than what I was hoping for. I knew that I had to get my mind right and make sure that I didn’t mess up that opportunity because I really wanted to get Team USA kickstarted on a great note in that event.”
“I was so nervous,” Sullivan explained. “Lindsay Mintenko [USA Swimming’s National Team Managing Director] was walking me to the ready room and she told me that she had never seen me that quiet before. I’m not a quiet person, I’m usually very talkative, but I was just silent. I was so nervous.
“I think it was just waking up that morning and, not necessarily knowing, but just wanting to be an Olympic medalist so badly. It just came down to the moment of, ‘I want this more than anyone else,’ you know?”
The two made their way out to the starting blocks for the final, Ledecky in lane four and Sullivan in lane three, in identical American-flag themed suits and the iconic black American-flag cap.
The athletes took their mark, the buzzer sounded, and Olympic history was made – the first Olympic women’s 1500 fee final was underway.
History in the Making
“The race started, I’m nervous, my toe is cramping and I’m just trying to focus on anything other than my nerves,” Sullivan said of the start. “That is probably why the toe cramp came up. I remember hyper-focusing on the toe cramp on the first 200 [meters] of the race.”
Three-hundred meters in, Ledecky was 3:03.85 at the touch to lead the other seven swimmers. The trio of Jianjiahe Wang (CHN), Simona Quadarella (ITA) and Sarah Kohler (GER) came in roughly two seconds afterwards. Sullivan would make the turn in the next pack, clocking a 3:09.10 at the 300-meter mark.
As the race entered its halfway mark, Ledecky remained ahead of the trio of Wang, Quadarella and Kohler, and suddenly Sullivan had started to distance herself from the 5-6-7 pack and was closing on the medal contenders.
“The whole way through was very much like, ‘focus on the race plan, focus on the race plan,’” Sullivan remembers. “If I did let emotions take over, I would have gone out too fast just from sheer excitement and I wouldn’t have executed the race like I did. Count your strokes, do your race plan and do what you’re supposed to do.”
Ledecky, on the other hand, was trying to steer her mind away from the gravity of the race.
“I wasn’t thinking too much about my race, I was actually thinking about my grandparents,” she said. “Just because—after that 200 free—I knew I had to think about something that would keep my happy during the race and keep me tough during the middle part of the race when I knew it would be hard.
“I was just kind of saying their names over and over in my head – without family in Tokyo it was just a nice reminder of everyone back home who was cheering me on and everyone who has been a part of my career, and my family is a big part of that. So I was thinking of them.”
Ledecky remained steadily ahead in first as the race entered its back half, while Sullivan was slowly chipping away at the trio of foreign competitors separating her from Ledecky.
At the 11-minute mark, Sullivan remained in fifth. At the 12-minute mark she was sliding into fourth and at the 13-minute mark she had found herself in medal contention with no sign of slowing down.
“I knew I was passing people, but I didn’t know how many I had passed or if anyone had snuck up in front of me and I just hadn’t seen them yet,” Sullivan said. “I thought that I was doing pretty well because I was getting closer to Katie, but I didn’t really have an idea of where everyone else was at.”
The bell rang – 100 meters to go.
Despite Sullivan not being able to see the other six swimmers, the public was watching the entirety of the field chase the Americans. The U.S. was going to post a gold-silver finish.
Ledecky stopped the clock in 15:37.34 for gold followed by Sullivan in 15:41.41 for silver. Ledecky looked up at the scoreboard, saw the 1-2 finish, smacked the water and jumped the lane line to hug her teammate.
“I was honestly excited for when I saw that Katie was celebrating because I thought that meant she had a good race,” Sullivan said. “Katie had such a crazy schedule with the 200 free, the relay, the 400 free and the 800 – she just had so many things going on. So the fact that she had such a good race in the mile, it was like, ‘good for her, she needed a win in her books and she did that.’ But then, low and behold, it was actually her celebrating for the both of us.”
“It was my first gold in Tokyo, so there was kind of that emotion of getting a gold at a third-straight Olympics, but then to see Erica touch for second was amazing,” Ledecky said. “I wanted to make sure that we celebrated that appropriately. We were celebrating for all the women before who didn’t have the opportunity we had.”
They got out of the pool, put their arms around each other and shouted in excitement towards their U.S. teammates in the stands. Not only had they swam the first ever women’s 1500 free, they were the first gold and silver medalists in the event’s Olympic history.
“That photo of us celebrating and having our arms up is of us looking back at the Team USA section. We were putting our hands up towards them,” Sullivan said. “That is the moment when I think we both realized that we did this for the team.
“I didn’t realize the grandness and the history of it all for a while – until the media and everyone was talking about this inaugural 1500 freestyle. That was the point when I realized that we did this together and it is going to go in the history books.”
They made their way through the media, warmed down and had the chance that American female freestylers had long been waiting for: They got to stand the podium after a 1500 free while the American flag was raised.
“Hearing the national anthem, since Katie won, that was a really cool moment,” Sullivan said. “Hearing that play and having us put our hands over our hearts, it was a moment where I remember vividly telling myself that I never want to forget what this feels like.”
For far too long, female distance freestylers never were able to fulfill their Olympic dream in the 1500. For those 16 minutes in Tokyo, Ledecky and Sullivan showed both current and future generations of women’s freestylers that this dream is now in reach.
“It’s awesome,” Ledecky said of the impact that will be felt for future 1500 freestylers. “It’s great that it is equal now and that the men’s and women’s events are the same. Hopefully the sport can continue to move forward and sports in general can continue to move forward in positive directions like that.”
“It is something that I can’t really wrap my head around, because the legacy and the power behind that swim is so much bigger than myself,” Sullivan added. “It’s awesome. It is so cool that these girls who are watching at home, or honestly kids who aren’t even born yet, are going to see replays of our swim and be like, ‘I want to do that. I want to win a medal in that.’”