For African-American Water Polo Goalie Ashleigh Johnson, The Medium Is The Message: Everyone Into The Pool

Swimming gold medalist Simone Manuel is not the only African-American woman with a landmark achievement in a Rio Olympic pool.

Water polo goalie Ashleigh Johnson also has made history for black women in the water, whether she wins a medal or not – and her team has a perfect (4-0) record going into Wednesday afternoon’s Olympic semifinal against Hungary.

Manuel, 20, of suburban Houston, became the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal. In her reaction to that moment of triumph in the 100-meter freestyle, she also won worldwide acclaim with an emotional and eloquent acknowledgement of those black swimmers who had inspired her and her desire to inspire others.

Johnson, 21, of far exurban Miami, is the first black woman to represent the United States in Olympic water polo.

She also hopes her presence will have an “if-you-can-see-it, you-can-be-it” effect in motivating other African-American kids to learn to swim, whether or not it leads them to compete in one of the sports.


For Biles And Ledecky, Greatness Comes From Going Beyond The Top

RIO DE JANEIRO – In two hours Thursday afternoon, I went from watching Katie Ledecky, who defies the clock in a pool, to watching Simone Biles, who defies gravity on a gymnastics floor.

These two 19-year-olds, born three days apart in March of 1997, each dominates her sport in a way that leaves their rivals in awe.

“If Katie swims the way she can, we all are swimming for second or third,” Denmark’s Lotte Friis, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, told me two months ago.

“I knew Simone was going to win; I was just hoping to get second,” her U.S. teammate, Aly Raisman, said early Thursday evening, when Raisman had done just that as Biles took the Olympic all-around title by 2.1 points, the largest victory margin in the last 40 years.

Biles has a team gold medal. And the all-around gold. And she will be favored to add three more in the individual events.

Ledecky has three golds and a silver. She is heavily favored to win a fourth gold Friday after setting an Olympic record in the 800-meter freestyle preliminaries Thursday.

What Biles and Ledecky share is the same plan for getting farther ahead of the opposition when triumph already is a foregone conclusion.


From A Distance, Debbie Meyer Seeing Herself Again In Katie Ledecky

RIO DE JANEIRO - Every day, as Katie Ledecky gets closer to matching Debbie Meyer’s singular Olympic swimming triple, Meyer finds herself feeling closer to Ledecky. 

In ways big and small. 

“The similarities seem more and more as time goes on,” Meyer said via telephone this week from Truckee, California. 

From some 7,000 miles away, she is assiduously following Ledecky’s quest to become the second woman to win the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in the same Olympics. 

Meyer did it in the 1968 Olympics. Now that Ledecky has won the 200 freestyle, the only race in which she was not an overwhelming favorite, it seems a foregone conclusion that she will attain the same elevated status as Meyer after Friday’s final of the 800-meter. In 2016, no one has come within 11 seconds of Ledecky’s time in the event, a world-record 8 minutes, 6.68 seconds. 



How Michael Phelps Changed My Mind: Now (And Forever?) He Has Become The Greatest Olympian Of All Time

RIO DE JANEIRO – The crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium was different Tuesday night.

It reacted unlike the swimming crowds had the first three nights of the Olympic meet, when the loudest noise had been reserved for Brazilian athletes, none of whom had yet contended for medals. I suddenly felt as if I were at a Passover seder, hearing the question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

The difference was a chance to see an athlete for the ages, to see him firsthand in his first individual final of these Olympics, a moment of universal significance, a moment the spectators relished.

When Michael Phelps was announced at the start of the 200-meter butterfly, the crowd roared and roared.

It was that way at the end, too, after Phelps had extracted payback for his loss in the event four years ago. He straddled a lane line, flexed his right arm, put the index finger of each hand in the air. The noise grew. Phelps gestured with his hands, asking the crowd for more, and they responded with fervor.

The victory and the acclaim, for his swimming achievements and his impact on the sport and the Olympics, all of it has combined to convince me of something I had argued against in the past.

Michael Phelps is no longer just the most decorated Olympian of all time and the best swimmer of all time.

He is the greatest Olympian of all time.



With Plenty Of Pain, Ledecky's Gain Is 200 Freestyle Gold

RIO DE JANEIRO - This was a race, not a Katie Ledecky victory parade. It left her face contorted from exhaustion, the result of an effort that took every ounce of her physical and mental strength.

She had prevailed in a scintillating Olympic final of the 200-meter freestyle, the one individual event of her three in Rio where the challenge was an opponent, not the clock. She had held off the late surge of Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, who had the fastest 200 in the world this season – until Tuesday night.

Ledecky had won her second 2016 Olympic freestyle gold and now seems virtually certain to join compatriot Debbie Meyer as the only women to win the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in the same Olympics, with Meyer having done it in 1968.

“Katie is the queen of freestyle,” Sjostrom said.

The 800 remains, with the prelims Thursday and final Friday. The longer the distance, the more dominant Ledecky becomes.