“I look back on that, and I’m like, ‘Katie, chill,’ ” she laughed Sunday morning at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. “I wish I had a little more chill sometimes.”
But shutting off her mind from thoughts of swimming is even harder. She’ll enter this hard-earned break in her schedule, following a Tokyo Olympics in which she won four more medals to add to the six she already owned, telling herself to push the pool out of her mind — to “sit with this one for a while,” as she puts it. But she already suspects it’s futile.
“That’s my biggest goal over the next coming weeks: not thinking about what events I’m going to swim, what’s my next goal,” said Ledecky, 24. “I’d like to give myself a month and then start thinking about it. Everybody says, ‘Take some time, give yourself a break from time to time, and you’ll know when it’s time to start thinking about those goals.’ But I know those thoughts will creep in my mind.”
Twenty-four hours after wrapping up her Tokyo meet — where she earned gold medals in the women’s 1,500- and 800-meter freestyles and silver in the 400 free and 4x200 free relay — she had no qualms about looking back across the previous eight days of competition. Her wins in the 800 and 1,500 gave her six gold medals in individual events across her Olympic career, the most in history for a female swimmer.
“That one’s pretty cool,” she said of the individual gold medals mark, “and not something I take lightly.”
Tokyo is where Ledecky made Olympic history, winning the first gold ever handed out in the women’s 1,500 free, then becoming the first swimmer to win the 800 free in three straight Games. And it was also where she was beaten in an individual race for the first time — and then a second time, with Australia’s Ariarne Titmus winning gold in the 400 and 200 frees. Ledecky took silver in the former and finished fifth in the latter.
Taking her 200, 400 and 800 times together, she was a combined 10 seconds off her winning times in Rio. (In the case of the 400 and 800, her 2016 times were world records that still stand.) It is the kind of thing — being unable to match her 2016 times again — that frustrated her in the first year or two after Rio. Being able to accept the new reality, while never giving up the hope of beating those times someday, gives her more pride than a carry-on bag full of hardware.
“It was overwhelming at first,” she said. “But over the years as I’ve grown, I just recognized that if I put in the work and give my best effort, I’m going to be happy with the outcome no matter what. I think that’s what I’m most proud of this week — how I handled that, how I took each race and found something to be really happy about with each of them. I’m not sure if two or three years ago, if you’d told me I went, for example, these times that I’d be able to say I’m happy with that. But I truly am this week.”
Those words thrilled her coach, Greg Meehan, who was also the head women’s coach for Team USA in Tokyo. It’s something he has tried to hammer home to Ledecky since Rio — that she doesn’t have to go a personal best to have been successful. It’s entirely possible the bar Ledecky set in Rio is simply unreachable, even for Ledecky herself.
“I was really happy for her to articulate that,” Meehan said, “because as I step back and watch her … just the expectations for her always to perform at certain level, I hoped that she could get to this point where she is really happy and excited with her performances even though she didn’t go a best time here at the Olympics.”
In Tokyo, Ledecky went head-to-head with Titmus four times, achieving a split decision. Titmus won at 200 and 400 meters, with Ledecky getting the better of her at 800 meters and in the 4x200 free relay. In the process, they gained a newfound respect and admiration for each other.
The matchups with Titmus, 20, also gave Ledecky a glimpse of the future and where the bar is likely to be. Ledecky’s future in swimming is almost certain to intersect with that of Titmus, who has established herself as the one to beat in future international competitions, particularly in the 200 and 400. Ledecky has committed to swim through the Paris 2024 Olympics and perhaps in Los Angeles 2028 as well. But that raises some questions:
- Can Ledecky keep swimming the 800 and 1,500 past the age when most distance swimmers give them up?
- Can she get fast enough again in the 200 and 400 — which almost certainly would mean going faster than her 2016 times — to take those crowns back from Titmus?
- Could she move down in distance and make the 100 free a part of her core program?
Could she diversify and maybe get serious about the 400 individual medley (an event she swam five times in meets in 2019, posting a best time, 4:39.39, that would have had her seeded 10th at Olympic trials had she entered it)?
They’re all questions for another day.
“This is the piece I haven’t figured out yet,” she said.
This time, she said, she is going to try to give herself a mental break before tackling what her swimming future might look like. But in the next breath, she pointed out the 2022 world championships are earlier on the calendar than usual: next May, in Fukuoka, Japan. That’s only 9½ months away.
At this rate, her vow to shut off her mind from swimming won’t even last until the plane ride home from Tokyo.