Fukuoka, Japan – Katie Ledecky won a record-extending 20th gold at swimming’s world championships on Tuesday but Romanian sensation David Popovici fell flat, missing out on a medal after an “awful” performance.
Ledecky romped home in the women’s 1,500m freestyle in Fukuoka to bolster her credentials as the most decorated woman swimmer in the history of the world championships.
It was also her 15th individual world gold, drawing her level with fellow American great Michael Phelps.
Ledecky said that “every race has a story to it” after she won the 15,000m freestyle world title for a fifth time.
“I’m just feeling really locked into my distance races right now,” the 26-year-old said.
“I dove in and felt really, really good.”
Ledecky’s gold was one of two for the United States, with Ryan Murphy dethroning Italian champion Thomas Ceccon in the men’s 100m backstroke.
Britain won its first gold of the championships as Matthew Richards stunned Popovici in the men’s 200m freestyle.
Australia’s Kaylee McKeown beat American rival Regan Smith to win the women’s 100m backstroke, while Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte came out on top in the women’s 100m breaststroke.
Ledecky came home in a time of 15min, 26.27sec to win the 15,000 freestyle ahead of Italy’s Simona Quadarella on 15:43.31 and China’s Li Bingjie on 15:45.71.
It was the third-fastest swim of all-time and gave Ledecky the 16 top times ever in the event.
“I feel good — it hurt a lot but I’m really happy with the outcome,” Ledecky said.
“I’m just having a lot of fun this week.”
Popovici was expected to share top billing with Ledecky but he suffered a shocking meltdown in the first final of the evening.
The 18-year-old, one of swimming’s brightest stars and the red-hot favourite to defend his 200m freestyle title, comfortably led from the start and looked set to coast to victory as he reached the home straight.
But he faded badly as his rivals closed in, and ended up out of the medals completely as Britain’s Matthew Richards took gold in 1min, 44.30sec.
Britain’s Tom Dean was second on 1:44.32 and South Korea’s Hwang Sun-woo was third on 1:44.42, leaving Popovici fourth on 1:44.90.
Popovici said he “felt awful” but believed his shock defeat could benefit him as he eyes gold at next year’s Paris Olympics.
“If you have the absolute perfect race and you have nothing else to improve, you know that you’ve basically reached the top, the limit,” he said.
“You know that you can do nothing better from there on.
“I’m glad it happened now and I’m sure it has a meaning and I’m going to learn from it,” he added.
Last year in Budapest, Popovici became the first man to complete the 100m-200m freestyle double at a world championships in nearly 50 years.
Richards said “keeping my head” was the key to beating him.
“Swimming isn’t a sport like boxing — no one is going to come in and hit you in the face,” said the 20-year-old, who was apearing in his first world final.
“It’s all about you and what you do in your lane.”
Olympic champion and world record-holder McKeown won her battle with defending champion Smith in the 100m backstroke.
The Australian came home in 57.53sec to beat Smith on 57.78 and American Katharine Berkoff on 58.25.
McKeown was disqualified from her 200m individual medley semi-final on Sunday and she said it had been “a hard 48 hours”.
“If you’re not learning, you’re not growing, so I had to find a positive and a negative and that’s exactly what I did,” she said.
Murphy claimed the Americans’ second gold of the evening in the men’s 100m backstroke, finishing in 52.22sec to beat Ceccon on 52.27 and American Hunter Armstrong on 52.58.
In the women’s 100m breaststroke, Meilutyte came home in 1min, 04.62sec to finish ahead of South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker on 1:05.84 and Olympic champion Lydia Jacoby on 1:05.94.
France’s Leon Marchand, who broke Michael Phelps’s world record in the 400m individual medley on Sunday, qualified for the 200m butterfly final in a second-fastest time of 1min, 54.21sec.