Relaxed Katie Ledecky Ready for Her Toughest Challenge Yet in Tokyo

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Katie Ledecky -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Relaxed Katie Ledecky Ready for Her Toughest Challenge Yet in Tokyo

After a year-plus where nothing was normal, Katie Ledecky was finally in a spot that felt comfortable and familiar. The disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the west coast-based Ledecky did not see her family on the east coast for more than a year before last month’s Olympic Trials, and she still has not been back to her Maryland home since Christmas 2019. She spent months swimming in a backyard pool in the spring of 2020 and then entered a post-lockdown new normal including lots of social distancing and little travel.

The Stanford squad typically takes multiple training trips each year, mostly to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, but that was a no-go since the pandemic began. So that’s why the U.S. Olympic team’s training camp in Hawaii had felt so refreshing and invigorating for Ledecky. Even over zoom (in a USA Swimming-organized media call), Ledecky’s comfortable and relaxed demeanor at the camp was evident.

“Training, it’s been great,” Ledecky said. “This is like summer camp for me. It always has been, since London when I was 15. I love training, and I love this atmosphere, being able to train with the nation’s best, whether that’s swimming in a group in practice with people or racing the guys. We haven’t been able to get out of our home training base this year, so I think it’s been good to have a different environment, be able to train with different people.”

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Katie Ledecky in 2012, when she qualified for her first Olympic team as a 15-year-old — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

London was Ledecky’s first Olympics, and one of just two times in her career that she has arrived at an international meet as anything besides the favorite in an individual event. Back then, she was established as a youngster to keep an eye on after a surprising 800 free victory at Olympic Trials, but then she stole the show from hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington and earned her first Olympic gold.

The next year, when Ledecky was 16 at her first World Championships in 2013, she was the pre-meet favorite in the 800 and 1500 free but not the 400 free. She promptly became just the second woman to break 4:00 on her way to her first world title in that eventlater that week, she broke the world records in the 800 and 1500 free for the first time.

Two years later, Ledecky was the co-favorite in a hotly-anticipated women’s 200 free at the 2015 World Championships, but it was no surprise to see her take down the likes of world record-holder Federica Pellegrini and defending world champion Missy Franklin and other impressive names. In every race for the rest of that Olympic cycle, leading into the 2016 Rio Games, everyone knew Ledecky was the headliner, and she was still unbeatable.

Since Rio, Ledecky has been vulnerable. She did not win the 200 free at the 2017 World Championships or 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, and then came 2019, when Ariarne Titmus ran down Ledecky to steal the 400 free world title in a stunner on the first day of the meet. The next day, Ledecky struggled through the 1500 free prelims before revealing that she was ill and scratching out of both the 1500 free finals and the entire 200 free.

That was the first time in Ledecky’s long and decorated career that she faced real adversity at a major meet. “I think we all learn from past experiences,” Ledecky said. “I think it would be disappointing if I didn’t take some lessons away from 2019.” Part of that was finding ways of reducing her risk of getting sick in the future, but Ledecky also proved her own toughness and and resilience to herself and to the world.

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Ariarne Titmus after winning a stunning gold in the 400 free at the 2019 World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“I just learned to be as tough as I can be at that stage being able to turn around my meet at the end of that meet in Gwangju. There were moments when I just wanted to fly home. I just didn’t think I was going to be able to contribute to the relay, and my mile prelims, I thought I was going to have to get out halfway through, so I was a little nervous about my 800. I got up on the relay and threw down a pretty decent 1:54-mid split and just kind of rolled through the rest of the meet and came away with a gold in the 800 as well,” Ledecky said, referring to the 800 free duel with Simona Quadarella that was arguably the gutsiest swim of her career.

“I think I just showed myself that if something like that happens, I can tough it out. I really hope I don’t have a similar experience anytime soon, but we’re all human, and we all get sick.”

Ledecky’s Olympic Outlook

Ledecky will arrive at the Tokyo Olympics with the strongest career résumé of anyone at the aquatic center. That’s no hyperbole—while there will be some competitors who have swum at more Olympic Games, there are no others who have already clinched a spot in the discussion of the greatest swimmers ever. But right now, she does not look invincible, certainly not at the level of 2016, when Sarah Sjostrom swam one of the fastest performances ever in the 200 free and Ledecky still held her off.

In the 800 free, yes, Ledecky is poised to join Dawn Fraser and Krisztina Egerszegi as the only women to capture three straight Olympic gold medals in one event. She is heavily favored to win the inaugural Olympic gold medal in the 1500 free. But defending her golds in the 400 free, 200 free and 800 free relay will be tough, particularly with Australia’s Titmus having recently swum the second-fastest times ever in both the 400 free (3:56.90) and 200 free (1:53.09), the 200 free with a mark much quicker than Ledecky has ever swum.

During the Olympic Trials, both Ledecky and Greg Meehan, the head coach of the U.S. women in Tokyo and Ledecky’s personal coach, insisted Ledecky was not getting too caught up in the hype of Titmus’ performances, instead staying grounded and zeroed in on her own business. But Ledecky recognized the challenge Titmus would provide and felt eager to get in and race.

“She swam really, really fast a couple weeks ago. Honestly, it was so awesome to see. She’s really shown that she’s really fast at the international meets, and I’m sure she’s going to be great in Tokyo. She’s somebody that I love racing. I think we bring the best out of each other,” Ledecky said. “I know she’s going to be fast, and I know she thinks the same of me. It’s great to see the sport move forward, and she’s definitely doing that.”

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Katie Ledecky and 15-year-old Katie Grimes finished 1-2 in the 800 free at the U.S. Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Today, the smart money on both individual races would be on Titmus in the 400 and 200 and on Australia in the 800 free relay. That’s the by-the-book, on-paper race analysis. But Ledecky does have a track record of stepping forward when the odds are not in her favor, so maybe she can dig deep into that reservoir of greatness and produce some amazing swims. Would you really be shocked to see her deliver her best efforts in years on swimming’s grandest stage, at the meet which all of this goal-driven athlete’s goals have been pointing to?

Of course, this Olympics will not be the experience Ledecky has come to know in London and Rio—no fans and no families, strict COVID protocols ruling the day. Political controversy involving the International Olympic Committee has threatened to overshadow the athletic performances of the Games, which undeniably deserve the spotlight. Ledecky hopes the world can still see the Tokyo Olympics as the special showcase they should be.

“Even though we’re not having fans this summer, the world is still coming together,” she said. “Athletes and coaches and volunteers, everyone is getting together in this one city to pursue their goals they’ve worked for for five years. I think that’s a great thing. I know this is a made-for-TV Olympics, and I hope everyone around the world tunes in and recognizes the beauty of the work that all these athletes have put into in the last five years.”

In her first two experiences at the Olympic Games, Ledecky has risen to the occasion and recorded magical performances on both occasions that etched her name into the American and global sports lexicon. The challenge required to match or exceed all expectations in her third trip would be her greatest accomplishment yet.

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