By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The spotlight will be trained on Katie Ledecky as she bids to become the most successful female Olympian at the Tokyo pool but lurking in the shallows is Ariarne Titmus, a waterborne predator poised to strike at the queen of American swimming.
Australian Titmus caused a sensation when she upset an unwell Ledecky for the 400 metres freestyle title at the 2019 world championships and now looms as the biggest threat to the five-times Olympic champion's hopes of another golden haul.
Entered in the 200, 400 and 800m freestyle, 20-year-old Titmus will look to deny Ledecky back-to-back titles in three of her five events at Tokyo after lighting up Australia's Olympic trials in June.
The Tasmanian, nicknamed "Terminator", swam the second fastest 200 and 400m of all-time in Adelaide to allay concerns over a shoulder problem that forced her out of the pool for a period.
Her 200 (1:53.09) was barely a tenth of a second behind Federica Pellegrini's long-standing world record (1:52.98), while the 400 (3:56.90) was within half a second of Ledecky's world mark of 3:56.46.
The blistering times have given Titmus confidence before her first Olympics, and her showdown with Ledecky could be the highlight of the Tokyo pool, if not the Games themselves.
Some pundits have declared Titmus favourite for the 200 and 400 but the Australian still regards herself the underdog.
"I’m her number one competitor at the moment," Titmus said of Ledecky, who won four gold medals as a 19-year-old at Rio.
"I’m definitely still saying I’m the hunter.
"This is her third Olympic Games and she’s dealt with the pressure before and I’m kind of coming into unknown territory."
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant their rivalry has played out from long distance since the 2019 world championships.
Titmus, who has developed close relationships with other countries' swimmers, described her exchanges with Ledecky as civil rather than warm.
"I mean, I’m not as close with her as other people from overseas," she told reporters from a training camp in Australia.
"When I do see her overseas, everything is very civil, very normal. She’s just a person ... It’s not like this massive rivalry that everyone thinks."
Though only 20, Titmus has been elevated to become one of the leaders of Australia's Olympic swim team, which has hopes of challenging the United States' traditional dominance in the pool.
Trained by 'super coach' Dean Boxall, Titmus oozes confidence but there is no hint of bravado when she says that even quicker times are within her grasp.
Ledecky's presence at Tokyo could prove the ultimate accelerator.
"The race will help me swim faster," she said.
"It’s very tough to be out on your own and you kind of have to run on instinct and understand where you are by feeling.
"Having someone next to me will hopefully push me along even more."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford)