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With Olympics postponed, Katie Ledecky focuses on educating herself — and others

Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky, shown at a meet last year, is keeping busy despite the postponement of the Tokyo Games. (Will Newton for The Washington Post)

Even with her world temporarily turned upside down, Katie Ledecky made it to Tokyo after all.

“Hi, everyone,” she said. “Can you hear me okay?”

The 23-year-old swimmer was seated in front of a laptop in her California apartment, a camera and an Internet connection linking her to a group of Japanese teenagers on the other side of the globe. The students in the checkerboard of boxes on the computer screen were brought together to discuss STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) through a program hosted by Ledecky and Panasonic, one of her corporate partners.

“Thank you all for being here today. I know it’s virtual, but it’s great to see all of your faces. If you don’t know much about me, I’m a two-time Olympic swimmer … ” she began.

This wasn’t how her spring and summer were supposed to unfold. Ledecky was to begin tapering soon, prepping for the U.S. Olympic swim trials in June and then several weeks later the Tokyo Olympics, where she was poised to be one of the biggest stars. But with the Summer Games postponed a full year and the novel coronavirus pandemic closing pools and disrupting training, Ledecky, like all Olympians, has had to adjust.

She trains at a backyard pool. She has been doing video calls with swim clubs. She re-enrolled in classes at Stanford. And she pushed back so many goals to 2021.

“What is your dream?” a student asked during a question-and-answer portion of the program.

“My dream right now is to be in Tokyo next year,” she said. “That was my dream for this year.”

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The decision by Japanese officials and the International Olympic Committee in March to postpone the Olympics was a relief for Ledecky, a five-time gold medalist who struggled for weeks to find a place to train when the outbreak hit the United States. While much of the Olympic world has been rocked financially in recent weeks, Ledecky is sill growing her portfolio heading into Tokyo. Even with the delay, she is keeping busy with her corporate partners and adding new ones. She recently signed deals with Adidas and Bic, and she was eager to push forward with the Panasonic initiative titled “Dive Into STEM Education.”

The session with about two dozen Tokyo students was initially envisioned as an in-person event, scheduled around the Olympics. Ledecky was still happy to do it virtually, fielding questions and stressing the importance of pursuing STEM fields.

“I think having this extra year gives me more of an opportunity to connect with different people,” she said in a recent interview.

The STEM event took place Sunday morning in Tokyo — Saturday evening in California. Like the rest of the country, Ledecky spent much of the preceding days following the headlines about the death of a black man at the hands of Minneapolis police and the ensuing protests that erupted across the country. Earlier in the day, she shared a message on social media, saying her “heart aches for George Floyd, his family, and all those who experience systemic injustice.

“I am angry, and I understand the dismay and anger in America right now,” she wrote. “To my teammates, friends, and community: I am here for you. I am here to listen and to comfort. I am here to engage in uncomfortable conversations. And I am here to vote.”

The postponed Olympics left Ledecky with time and a more flexible schedule. She will wrap up her training this summer without any more competitive racing and plans to begin working on the new season a bit earlier than usual, probably in August.

For now, she does her dry-land workouts in her apartment, and she gets in eight or nine swim sessions each week in a 25-yard pool, usually with just her coach, Greg Meehan, and former Stanford teammate and fellow Olympic champion Simone Manuel present.

“They’re basically the only two people I see on a regular basis,” she said.

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While she waits for Stanford’s facilities to reopen, Ledecky called this period of training “kind of strange.”

“Right now, I feel like we’re being productive and maintaining some level of where we were at,” she said, “not making huge gains but focusing in on a few details.”

The Tokyo postponement was announced early enough for Ledecky to enroll in classes. The psychology major had been taking time off from full-time coursework in preparation for the Olympics. Among her classes: Global Change and Emerging Infectious Disease. The online lectures cover the coronavirus but also past pandemics and all of the contributing factors to an outbreak.

“As someone who hasn’t had a lot of background in this topic, it’s been really, really interesting,” she said.

The sciences always intrigued Ledecky, which is why the Panasonic partnership and the STEM initiative appealed to her.

“I think she’s super relatable,” said Lauren Sallata, Panasonic’s chief marketing officer. “We felt like there was a lot of synergy with our target audience.”

The “Dive Into STEM Education” program includes a customized online platform for middle and high school students. Ledecky did an in-person event at a Bay Area school in February with about 100 students. Plans for other sites, including one in Washington, where Ledecky was born, were put on hold because of the pandemic.

“When we’re able to get back out into the world, we’re working on plans to bring Katie out and work with Katie in those locations,” Sallata said.

Over the weekend, Ledecky fielded questions from the Japanese students, telling them how she uses science and technology to improve her swimming and encouraging them to seek out their own passions.

They asked what she thinks about when she is competing and when she decided to become a swimmer. They asked about overcoming obstacles and the year-long postponement.

“I’m very grateful they were postponed and not canceled,” she said. “Again, I hope I’ll be there next year in Tokyo.”

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