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Katie Ledecky fuels furious comeback to power U.S. to silver in women's 4x200m relay

The only thing more shocking than Thursday's outcome is the fact that it did not result in a gold medal.

A gutsy anchor leg from Katie Ledecky powered the United States 4x200m freestyle relay team to silver behind China in a gripping final where all three medalists finished ahead of world record time.

Ledecky went 1:53.76 in her final leg to overtake heavily-favored Australia and come within four tenths of a gold medal Thursday.

USA's Kathleen Ledecky, Allison Schmitt, Paige Madden and Kathryn McLaughlin pose with their silver medals after placing second in the final of the women's 4x200m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021.ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP - Getty Images

China's winning time of 7:40.33 broke the previous world record — set two years ago by Australia at 2019 Worlds – by more than a second.

The expectation coming into the final was that Australia would surge ahead of the field and chase their own world record open water. The gold medal, to many, seemed like a foregone conclusion.

However, it was clear from the opening leg that the Aussies were in for a serious fight.

Leadoff swimmer Ariarne Titmus — the Olympic gold medalist in the 200m freestyle and the fastest woman in the world in 2021 – was unable to get Australia out to a lead after the first leg. China's Yang Junxuan went 1:54.37 to touch first and spring teammate Tang Muhan.

Shortly after, 31-year-old Allison Schmitt finished her leadoff leg for the U.S. in fourth position.

Australia briefly gained the lead midway through Emma McKeon's swim in the second leg, but China pushed back to take a .41 lead over Australia as each team's anchor leg swimmers hit the water. The U.S., nearly two seconds back, seemed destined for bronze.

But Ledecky closed on the two leaders furiously, swimming one of the most aggressive legs of her life.