Budapest, Hungary — Katie Ledecky surged to the wall.
Someone else was already there.
For the first time ever at the world championships, Ledecky knows what it’s like to lose.
Bidding to become only the second female swimmer to win six golds at a single worlds, Ledecky settled for silver in the 200-meter freestyle Wednesday evening when Italy’s Federica Pellegrini surged to a stunning victory on the final lap.
Pellegrini, the world-record holder, avenged a close defeat at the hands of Ledecky two years ago in Kazan, Russia. This time, it was the Italian touching first in 1 minute, 54.73 seconds.
Ledecky and Australia’s Emma McKeon tied for the silver at 1:55.18.
“I knew it was going to be a tough field and that I’d have to have a really good race and I just didn’t really have it today,” Ledecky said. “I can’t complain really with the silver medal.”
While Pellegrini covered her mouth in delight and climbed atop a lane rope to celebrate, Ledecky stared blankly at the scoreboard.
She had never seen a “2’’ beside her name at the world championships.
But there it was in Budapest, where Ledecky’s unbeaten streak in the second-biggest swimming competition after the Olympics finally came to an end.
“I didn’t really feel at the end that I had that extra gear that I normally have,” said the 20-year-old from the Washington, D.C., suburbs. “I didn’t really see much for the last 50, so I was just trying to put together a good race.”
Ledecky had been 12 of 12 over the last three championships, including three golds in this stately European capital. But her most audacious schedule yet — six freestyle events covering distances ranging from 100 meters (on a relay) to 1,500 (the grueling metric mile) — finally caught up with her along the banks of the Danube.
Missy Franklin will remain the only female swimmer to win a half-dozen events at worlds, while Ledecky can still take comfort in being the winningest female swimmer overall. Twelve golds leave her trailing only fellow Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte for the most victories.
And now she’s got one silver, too.
“It happens,” said Ledecky, who will be a heavy gold medal favorite in her last two events, the 800 free and 4x200 free relay. “It happens to every athlete at some point. I know this race will really motivate me moving forward and the rest of the week as well.”
Of course, losing to Pellegrini was hardly an embarrassment.
The 28-year-old became the first swimmer in the history of the championship to capture seven medals in a single individual event. Pellegrini’s incredible run in the 200 free began at the 2005 worlds in Montreal, where she grabbed a silver. She was third in 2007 at Melbourne, then won the event at back-to-back worlds, including a world-record performance in 2009 (1:52.98) that still stands from the rubber-suit era.
Pellegrini was runner-up at the last two worlds, finishing behind Franklin in 2013 at Barcelona and Ledecky two years ago.
Now, the Italian is back on top.
“I honestly thought the one to win the race would be Katie,” Pellegrini said.
“And,” she quickly added, “it wasn’t.”
McKeon got off to a blistering start, making the first turn more than a half-second below the world-record pace, while Ledecky — normally a slow starter because of her distance background — was lagging in fifth.
Ledecky rallied to second by the midway point, and was just one-hundredth of a second behind the Aussie when they made the final flip. But the two leaders, having spent so much energy dueling each other, didn’t have anything left for the final lap.
Pellegrini sure did.
Her closing 50 was a blistering 28.82 — nearly a full second faster than both Ledecky and McKeon.
“Everything seemed to be in slow motion to me in the water,” Pellegrini said. “At 150 meters on the turn we were all there, so I closed my eyes. But I didn’t think I was ahead in the last strokes. I was seeing the splashes … .”
She paused for a moment, as if trying to convince herself that it really happened.
“It’s incredible,” Pellegrini said. “I didn’t believe I would make it. I still can’t believe it.”
Standing in the aisles and screaming furiously, the packed house at Duna Arena came to cheer for Katinka Hosszu, who also was in the 200 free final, and Laszlo Cseh, one of the favorites in the 200 butterfly.
But Hosszu wasn’t a factor, finishing in seventh place, more than 1½ seconds behind the winner. Cseh rallied furiously over the final lap but couldn’t catch South African star Chad le Clos, who took the gold in 1:53.33.
Cseh settled for silver, though that didn’t prevent him from pausing on deck to salute the raucous crowd. The bronze went to Japan’s Daiya Seto.
Britain’s Adam Peaty cruised to victory in the 50 breaststroke, a non-Olympic event, but his time was a bit of a letdown. After breaking the world record in both the preliminaries and the semifinals — the latter in 25.95 — Peaty settled for only the second-fastest time ever (25.99) in the final. Brazil’s Joao Gomes Junior claimed the silver and South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh took bronze.
Still to come: finals of the men’s 800 freestyle and the 4x100 mixed medley relay, a relatively new event that will be part of the Olympics program for the first time at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The U.S. team of Ryan Murphy, Kevin Cordes, Kelsi Worrell and Mallory Comerford set a world record in the morning prelims at 3:40.28, breaking the mark of 3:41.71 set by Britain at the 2015 worlds when this event made its debut.