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.

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, competing in her fourth Olympics, 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, swimming one of the most aggressive legs of her life, closed on the two leaders furiously.

By the 700-meter mark, Ledecky had overtaken Australia's Leah Neale for second place and climbed right beside China's Li Bingjie

Li managed to get her hand on the wall first as Ledecky ran out of pool, her leg quickest of all competitors by .61. She swam nearly a second and a half faster than her individual 200 free final time, in which she finished fifth.

Despite finishing just shy of gold, the U.S. team celebrated their silver and the achievement of downing Australia.

"I think everyone counted us out. These girls just swam lights out and got us in a position where I felt like I could take on those two teams next to us," said Ledecky, joined by teammates Schmitt, Paige Madden and Katie McLaughlin. "I wish I had another half-second in me, but I gave it my all."

Schmitt summed up the effort with a single word: "Resilience."