“I know that number will get smaller and smaller,” Ledecky said, “and it goes faster and faster as we get closer.”
Ledecky, 22, begins her first competition of the calendar year Wednesday in Des Moines, but she cautioned that it’s hardly the start of her push to the Tokyo Olympics, where she’ll be among the highest-profile athletes chasing medals. The focus on these Summer Games began long ago, and every meet will offer hints at what might be possible this summer when the sport’s most dominant freestyle swimmer is expected to compete in her third Olympics.
“I feel like every meet everyone’s always saying it’s the kickoff or something,” she said in a recent interview on the campus where she trains. “The first meet in the fall was like that. I guess this is my first meet of 2020. But for me, it feels like the kickoff was a while ago — like, right after Rio.”
That’s when she started drawing up her goals for Tokyo, narrowing her events and structuring her training schedule. She is likely to compete in three meets before trials, and each stop serves as a mile marker of sorts, a chance to show that last year’s world championships were an ill-fated anomaly and that Ledecky is still capable of lighting a pool on fire with her blazing speed at a range of distances.
If anything, there’s somehow more intrigue surrounding Ledecky as this Olympic cycle draws to a close. She holds the freestyle world record marks at three distances: the 400, 800 and 1,500 meters. Two of those came at the 2016 Olympics, and the world’s best 1,500 time was set nearly two years ago. Since then, though, she has been chasing her own best times and her own name in the record books.
Still, Ledecky said she’s as comfortable as ever and feels she’s just as capable of posting times that create waves.
“In many ways, I feel like I’m training right now just as well or better than I was in those years leading into Rio,” she said. “So I feel really good about where I am. I feel like whenever I can do things in training that I’ve never done before, that I’m in a good place and I just keep challenging myself to be better and better every week.”
Said Meehan: “We’re pretty exited about how she’s doing. I’d say she’s had some of her best training at certain points this year, both in blocks and some individual sets she’s done that have been off the charts. She’s rolling in a good direction.”
Ledecky felt that way entering last summer, too, and was especially excited to see what was in store at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea. She already owned 14 world titles, and the meet was supposed to serve as a preview of sorts for this year’s Olympics, where Ledecky probably will compete in five events.
The world championships proved to be a big disappointment. She opened the meet with a second-place finish in the 400, the first time she had lost at that distance on a major international stage, and then she pulled out of two events (the 200 and the 1,500) because of illness.
She managed to help the U.S. team take silver in the 4x200 relay and then won her fourth world title in the 800. But her struggles cast the first bit of uncertainty on 2020 — or at least showed for the first time that Ledecky isn’t invincible, particularly at shorter distances.
She returned to the United States and saw specialists on both coasts to make sure the stomach bug that wrecked her meet wasn’t more serious. When she returned to the pool, she was eager to look ahead.
“It really didn’t take me a long time to get past 2019 worlds. I kind of thought it would take a little longer just because it kind of stung that I got sick and that they didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Ledecky said. “But by the time I got back into training a couple weeks later … I was able to focus in on this year and what I want to accomplish and kind of put that experience behind me really quickly.”
She said she quickly noticed that her strong training entering worlds was not for naught and actually gave her a head start when she hit the pool last fall.
“By the time she got to really the early part of October, she was rocking and rolling pretty good,” Meehan said.
Ledecky decided against taking classes this year, giving her more time to focus on swimming. Bouncing back from worlds, she competed in two long-course meets late last year — a TYR series event in Greensboro, N.C., in November and the U.S. Open four weeks later — but she had to skip the January TYR event in Knoxville, Tenn., because of illness.
This week in Des Moines will be her first meet in three months, and she is expected to race much of her Olympic program, including the 1,500 but not the 800. Ledecky will use the competition to measure her progress, and the swimming world will be looking for hints on what she’ll have in store for Tokyo this summer.
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