Katie Ledecky: 4 medals at Tokyo Olympics, eyes Paris 2024
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TOKYO – And now Katie Ledecky is resting.
So deep in the grind for so long, the greatest and most tireless freestyler of all time has finally emerged from this tunnel of commitment. Your work here at these Summer Olympics is done: two gold medals, two silver medals, a fifth place, no regrets.
This was the toughest of their three Olympics, both in terms of competition and workload. Ariarne Titmus of Australia completed her rise to the worthy rival of Ledecky with the two shared four matchups – Titmus won the 200 and 400 meter freestyles while Ledecky defeated her in the 800 meter and anchored a 4 x 200 meter relay, the Australians while losing gold to the Chinese. And with the addition of the 1,500m freestyle to the track, Ledecky put in a devastating 6,200m competition.
Take into account a pandemic that added a year to the run-up to these Olympics, and that’s a lot. She is ready for life on the other side of a five year journey, ready to reconnect to the world after being isolated for over a year.
Grace Hollars / USA TODAY Sports
She wants to go home – not to her apartment in Palo Alto, but to her parents’ home in Washington, DC for the first time since the pandemic. She wants to sleep in her own bed and get a breakfast sandwich at Izzy’s Deli and watch her beloved Nationals play. She urgently needs to visit her grandmothers, one in their 90s and the other in their 80s, the latter being in poor health. She wants to go to the schools she attended as a child to thank them for their support during these Olympics because that’s how Ledecky goes. Your loyalty is deep and true.
She can stay home for a while. Right now, and for the first time in a long time, she’s not tied to a schedule. She won’t wake up to chase anything. For once, autumn is currently undefined. “I think I’ll just let that sit a little,” she says.
After her revealing gold medal in the 800 meter freestyle in 2012 at the Olympic Games in London, Ledecky dived into the next Olympic Quadrennial full of anticipation in order to build from there. She couldn’t wait to get started in 2016, and the result was an unbroken line of reign. Then, after the Rio Games, she quickly immersed herself in college life and education, and quickly began the next chapter.
Now she is ready to exhale. During this nine-year successful streak of three Olympic Games and seven gold medals and a total of 10 medals, she has never left anything behind for a long period of time. I asked her what was the longest without water training and she said two and a half weeks. “I think that will be exceeded this year,” she says.
She wants to go to her old Palisades pool and fool around. Maybe play water basketball and table tennis with her older brother Michael. But she also knows what happens when she’s near a pool – the itching returns. It can be ignored for a while, but it can never be denied.
“I’m getting very eager,” she says. Perhaps there won’t be “hard laps,” but anyone who visits Palisades next month could find a legend that does an easy workout.
The fact that she can maintain that zeal and avoid the burnout that threatens so many elite swimmers is part of her greatness. Until Ariarne Titmus came from Australia, her only competition was the black line at the bottom of the pool and the clock in her head as she tried to chase her own unassailable records.
That has been getting more and more difficult since 2016 when she created her career masterpiece in Rio. Ledecky won four gold medals and one silver medal there, set two world records and won her longest event through breathtaking expanses of open blue water. Nobody was around.
Since then, she has set a world record over 1,500 meters in 2018. But from that point on, despite their relentless efforts, the persecution became more futile. She always took to the starting blocks, expecting to be able to swim better than ever, but was rarely rewarded.
Rob Schumacher / USA TODAY Sport
Would the Katie in her twenties ever catch the Katie in her late teens? Ultimately, she had to find peace with herself. She could still be the best in the world in many ways without being better than the 2016 version of herself.
The effort and the ambition would never falter, but the willingness to accept lower performance had to be done. “I started [after 2016] with the aim of driving the same times as in Rio and maybe driving faster. I’ve gained some perspective over the years as to how difficult it is. … I wouldn’t beat myself up if I didn’t do these times again. That was a great realization for me. I recognize the standard that I set for myself. “
This realization can fuel your next swimming chapter – and there will be a next swimming chapter. Ledecky has kept saying that she will swim in the Paris Olympics in 2024 for a long time, but for some reason this turned into a news flash in an NBC interview on Saturday.
She is not retiring or is about to retire. She might even hang around until Los Angeles in 2028, intrigued by the opportunity to compete in the Olympics on home soil (or home water, if you will). It seems like an incredibly long time to swim the grueling distances she covers, but when the joy of daily exertion comes, that time can go by quickly.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but I think I love training as much, if not more, than racing,” she said. So she’ll go back to the effort – but here she’s hoping she’ll stick with her plan to slow down longer than usual.
When Katie Ledecky gets into that Palisades pool next month, I hope it’s on a raft, rather than wearing a hat and goggles. She deserved the break.
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