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With eyes on Tokyo, Katie Ledecky returns to find out what a difference a year makes

Katie Ledecky reacts after winning the 1,500-meter freestyle a year ago at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Des Moines. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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As her last swim meet was wrapping up 12 months ago this week, Katie Ledecky was asked about the headlines that seemed to be getting bigger and scarier each day, casting some uncertainty on at least the near future, in and out of the pool.

“I’m following it all,” she said then. “Mostly to make sure I’m doing things I need to be doing. In terms of how it will affect the next couple of months: We’re all preparing like everything will go on as scheduled.”

Of course, within weeks, the coronavirus outbreak escalated to a full-blown pandemic. Training came to a halt, events were canceled and the Tokyo Games postponed. A full year has passed since Ledecky last had a real race, her longest layoff from competition since she took up the sport at age 6.

She returns to competition this week at the TYR Pro Swim Series event in San Antonio, offering a first glimpse of what might be in store at this summer’s postponed Olympics and shedding some light on what impact that year-long break might have on her quest for a third Games. Ledecky, 23, said in a recent interview that she feels “good about where I’m at,” but she is as eager as anyone to climb on the starting blocks and remind the world of her capabilities.

“There are things that you learn from racing that you don't necessarily get from just training,” she said.

Everything you need to know about the Tokyo Olympics

Ledecky is one of several Tokyo hopefuls returning to the pool this week. Some of the country’s top swimmers, including Caeleb Dressel and Simone Manuel, also haven’t competed at a long-course meet since last March’s event in Des Moines.

Ledecky is entered into all of the week’s freestyle races, starting with Wednesday’s 1,500-meter race. She’ll also swim the 200-, 400- and 800-meter events, offering a preview of the ambitious program she’ll tackle at the Olympic trials in June. With the 4x200 relay in the mix, she’ll probably take aim at five events in Tokyo, which would offer a chance to match or better her medal haul from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where she won four golds and a silver.

A year-long break could have presented insurmountable challenges for some athletes, the lack of competition leading to diminished motivation, but Ledecky’s coach, Greg Meehan, says he is comfortable with where Ledecky is in her Olympic preparations after using the unexpected downtime to focus on fundamentals, fine-tune her stroke and rethink race strategies.

“The lack of competition isn’t ideal from a racing perspective,” said Meehan, the Stanford coach who this summer will lead the U.S. women’s national team in Tokyo, “but for someone like Katie, I don’t think it hurts her as much. It’s allowed her to get in some really good training blocks, and we’ve been able to talk about some things that a year ago, we just didn’t have time to discuss.”

Olympic officials insist Tokyo Games on track for this summer

Swimming is a sport of repetition: waking up early each day, perfecting and repeating a stroke, logging lap after lap after lap. Ledecky loves the competition but has always been motivated by the work. She has been able to study and refine her kick and dissect old race videos as she considers the optimal split times to pursue at trials.

“I’m someone that loves training,” she said. “And so I just enjoy the day-to-day of being able to get into a rhythm and sort of see that progress.”

Neither Ledecky nor her coach are prone to big pronouncements or predictions, but they expect that year of training to pay dividends when she is finally sharing a pool with seven other racers.

“Of course, we don’t know yet know how it’ll pay off, and you can’t predict that necessarily,” she said. “But I feel like there have been some positives and some benefits. Maybe that’s just me looking at things optimistically.”

It’s easy to cling to optimism considering the twists and turns of the past year. After university and local officials closed down public pools last March, Ledecky had to scramble for backyard pools to continue her training. The uncertainty and anguish took a toll, especially as Olympic officials initially resisted calls to postpone the Tokyo Games.

“That was the hardest period, I would say, because we felt like the Olympics were still going to maybe happen and we were told, you know, just do the best that you can with your training,” she said. “Things got postponed, and we were finally able to take a deep breath and just kind of get our grounding again. Just like everyone, I have those days where I just really miss my family, but I think I’ve settled into a good rhythm here.”

Ledecky was able to resume training at Stanford in June, but because of local restrictions, she couldn’t travel for competitions without facing a quarantine upon returning home, which would’ve derailed her training. This week marks the first time she has been on a plane or left California since the Iowa meet last year. She will probably race two more times before the trials, and Meehan will try to get the most out of the truncated competition schedule.

While the coach certainly will be paying attention to race times this week, he really wants to see how Ledecky handles the workload and juggles so many events. Meehan’s swimmers have had informal races against University of California swimmers, and in January they mimicked the schedule of a Pro Swim Series meet, but this week marks the first time Ledecky will go through the motions of what probably awaits her in Omaha and later Tokyo.

USA Swimming shrinks Olympic trials as safety precaution

Though she is not targeting the 50- or 100-meter events at trials, Ledecky could compete in each this week as she looks to keep busy each day in the pool.

This meet will be held without spectators and follows strict coronavirus protocols. All swimmers were required to post a negative coronavirus test upon arrival in San Antonio and another within 48 hours of competing. On the pool deck and in hotels, they will be expected to socially distance and steer clear of one another.

Getting accustomed to those protocols amounts to training prep for a trials that promises to be much different from previous years.

“There is the idea of just racing in a heat and knowing there’s good competition next to you,” Meehan said. “But we also want to work through the logistics of being at a meet with all these protocols in place. We don’t want to do that for the first time at Olympic trials. So it’s good for her to be back in a meet setting. I think there’s a lot of things we’ll be able to take away from this.”