RIO DE JANEIRO • On a night when the most bemedalled Olympian claimed his 21st gold medal, two other dominant swimmers also held sway at the Games.
Katie Ledecky of the United States won the 200m free for her second gold in Rio, while Hungary's Katinka Hosszu won her third, setting an Olympic record in the 200m individual medley.
The two swim stars may never get a chance to face off against each other - Ledecky is a freestyle specialist, Hosszu focuses more on the backstroke - but they have stolen the spotlight to such an extent that there is an underlying battle within the pool to be the best female swimmer in Rio.
However, the path to glory does not come easy. On Tuesday, en route to her 200m freestyle gold in 1min 53.73sec, Ledecky's body ached like never before at these Olympics.
Her rival Sarah Sjostrom was somewhere, either ahead or behind. She had no idea. So she kept pushing her arms, her feet, her stomach until near the end she burped. And as she did, she thought she would vomit in the water for all the world to see on live television.
When Ledecky finished and realised her quest to be the second woman to take gold in the 200m, 400m and 800m at the same Olympics was still alive, she showed no elation. She did not pump her fist or shout.
RAGE FOR PERFECTION
I swim better when I get mad so I just sucked deep and knew I had only 25m left.
KATIE LEDECKY, on her come-from-behind win in the 200m freestyle over Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom.
VIEWING RACING AS FUN
It's really unreal. It's really weird. Honestly, I don't think I had my best race tonight.
KATINKA HOSSZU, on winning her third gold medal in the 200m IM.
"I was done when I hit the wall," she said. "That was a really tough race… the closest I've come to throwing up."
The 19-year-old makes winning gold look so easy it is hard to forget the agony she puts herself through in every race.
The 200m is her toughest challenge - a sprint for a body designed to outlast everybody in the longer distances. Her lust to seize those three golds extracts an excruciating price in the pool. She almost welcomes the pain. It is a symbol of accomplishment, a sign that she wasted nothing.
"It meant I had pushed as hard as I could," she said.
This was a fight, a battle she was not even sure she could win. All she could do was try to squelch the dinner that was bubbling up in her throat and pray it would not spill into the water.
"I know I can get through it and it's almost like you get mad when that happens and I swim better when I get mad so I just sucked deep and knew I had only 25m left," Ledecky said after the race.
Whether it was will or fury, she has taken golds in her first two Rio finals. She is now the third woman and sixth swimmer overall to win gold in the 200m and 400m in the same Olympics.
The only other women are the American, Debbie Meyer, who did it in 1968, and Australia's Shane Gould in 1972.
Gold medals won: 100m backstroke (58.45sec), 200m individual medley (2min 6.58sec, Olympic record), 400m individual medley (4:26.36, world record).
Event left: 200m backstroke
She holds the third-fastest time of the year at 2:06.88, behind Australians Belinda Hocking and Emily Seebohm.
Gold medals won: 200m freestyle (1:53.73), 400m freestyle (3:56.46, world record).
Event left: 800m freestyle
She is also the current world record holder for this event with a time of 8:06.68 set at the Arena Pro Swim Series in Austin in January.
* Both events on Friday, Aug 12
Will she have enough for the 800m tomorrow? This is what she has trained these last four years to do.
On the other hand, Hosszu, who snared her third gold at the Games on the same day with a gut-busting win in the 200m individual medley final, would probably not fully comprehend Ledecky's struggle to win gold medals and her desire to break records.
The 27-year-old, who set an Olympic record of 2min 6.58sec, had already broken the world record for the 400m individual medley (4min 26.36sec) on Saturday and won the 100m backstroke on Monday.
"Coming into Rio I didn't have any Olympic medals so I would have been OK having any colour medals," Hosszu said.
"It's really unreal. It's really weird. Honestly, I don't think I had my best race tonight. But even if I don't have my best race, I can still touch the wall first."
Britain's Siobhan-Marie O'Connor took the silver medal, with Maya DiRado of the United States winning bronze.
Hosszu, the "Iron Lady" who withdrew from the 200m butterfly earlier on Tuesday to prepare for the evening race, is entered in one more individual event, the 200m backstroke.
If she wins that, she will equal the women's record of four solo swimming golds at a single Games set by East Germany's Kristin Otto in Seoul in 1988.
She said however that she would just treat the rest of the meet as fun, and would not be putting any pressure on herself.
"I thought really that having just one gold would be unbelievable," she said.
"Having three so far is really just a bonus. I'm not going to put that kind of pressure on me. It's going to be a lot of fun racing, knowing that I already have three."
At the end of the day, Hosszu may end up with four golds, Ledecky three. By the medal count alone, the Hungarian triumphs.
But if judging is based on who has taken swimming by storm at the Rio Olympics, it is perhaps safe to say it is a fair battle.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS