“It felt like each day has been months,” Ledecky said in a telephone interview.
She was poised to be one of the most visible faces of the Tokyo Games, probably pursuing five Olympic medals, which would match her haul from the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. But like top swimmers across the country — athletes across the world, really — the novel coronavirus completely disrupted her preparations. Ledecky struggled to find a place to train, and she faced daily uncertainty about the fate of the Tokyo Games — originally scheduled to begin July 24 — and constant frustration that athletes were put in such a precarious predicament.
“There were some mixed messages from some of the higher-up organizations and committees,” she said. “We wanted to put our health and the health of others first. But while people were telling us to do that, they were also sending mixed messages about what might happen this summer and saying we should keep training. Just a lot of uncertainty.
“Honestly, it took a toll on all of our mental health. I think that’s something that was underestimated by some of the higher-ups. Ultimately, it became clear that everyone around the world is facing the same thing, and we need to pull together to change this.”
Ledecky, 23, had her last practice session at Stanford on March 13. Then the campus effectively closed, shutting down access to school facilities, including the pools Ledecky trains at almost daily. That sent Ledecky and Olympian Simone Manuel, a fellow professional swimmer who trains alongside Ledecky and the Stanford swim team, scrambling. They trained for a day at a private club in the area but realized it wasn’t a long-term solution. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee was forced to close its training center in Colorado Springs, which shut down perhaps the best option.
“We were being told to do our best and that the Olympics were still on,” Ledecky said. “While the Olympics were still on, we felt like we needed to keep searching and searching hard to find options.”
They considered relocating to Southern California and even Florida in hopes of training in an Olympic-sized pool.
“But at the end of the day,” Ledecky said, “I felt pretty strongly about trying to stay in this area and find what we could around here. I didn’t really want to risk traveling and putting myself or other people at risk from a health perspective.”
Ledecky spent most of the past 1½ weeks in her Palo Alto, Calif., apartment. After several days with no swimming options, she was finally able to take a dip over the weekend — in a backyard pool.
“Honestly, it’s been more just therapeutic,” she said. “It hasn’t really been training. It’s just been something to do, something to get our minds off the uncertainty that we’ve all been in these last 10 days or so.”
She monitored developments from afar, both the coronavirus headlines and also the growing wave of voices that began to call for an Olympic postponement.
“It became pretty inevitable that this would happen,” she said. “ … I guess at certain points there were times we didn’t know if cancellation was still on the table or if there could be a postponement until the end of this year or some other time. It’s good to have clarity now.”
Ledecky plans to stay in Palo Alto and reset her focus on 2021, even though it could be weeks before she can resume steady training.
Since she returned from the 2016 Olympics, she had been locked in on the summer of 2020. Every Monday, Greg Meehan, her coach, would update the number scribbled on a whiteboard, counting down the days until the Olympic trials. Soon there will be a new number and a new date circled on the calendar.
“It’ll be a challenge, something new to adjust to,” she said. “We’re flexible. We’re athletes — we’ve all faced different challenges. This is one we’re all facing together, which makes it a little easier, I think. We’ll figure it out.”
Until a new date is set for the Tokyo Games, USA Swimming can’t reschedule its Olympic trials or draw up its competition calendar for next year. But Ledecky figures despite this unexpected break, pools might start to reopen in May or June, and she then will have a solid year to prepare in earnest for the postponed Olympics.
“I’m going to do what I can right now to try to stay in good overall shape,” she said. “It typically doesn’t take me very long to get back into it. I’m just going to use this opportunity to find ways to get better in other areas of my training.
“We’re going to have a great opportunity to get a lot of work in. When that time comes, I think we’ll all be rested and ready to put in that year’s worth of work and see what we can do next year.”