Publish date:

Katie Ledecky Is Hungry For Even More at the Tokyo Olympics

Nine years into a nearly unbroken line of success and entering her third Games, the top American swimmer is determined as ever.
Author:

Sign up for our free daily Olympics newsletter: Very Olympic Today. You'll catch up on the top stories, smaller events, things you may have missed while you were sleeping and links to the best writing from SI’s reporters on the ground in Tokyo.

For more than a year, Katie Ledecky lived a monastic existence. She left her Palo Alto apartment to swim and lift weights, then she went back home and stayed there. She masked up and locked down, not seeing a single member of her close-knit family in person from March 2020 to April '21. If medals were awarded for the seriousness with which an athlete approached the pandemic, Ledecky would have another gold to add to her extensive Olympic collection.

It can be lonely at the top, a truism few athletes know better than Ledecky. She essentially created her own summit and spent many years occupying it without company in women’s distance swimming, far ahead of the rest of the world, chasing only her own records. The pandemic added a different layer of loneliness, but she was committed to staying safe while continuing her training for a third Olympic Games.

Her ascetic lifestyle left a lot of downtime. She filled part of it by finishing work on her Stanford degree in psychology (with a minor in political science), fulfilling sponsor obligations, speaking to club swim teams, FaceTiming her parents daily, and participating in game nights via Zoom with her brother, Michael, and 15 cousins. Still, she was ready for more.

One day in the fall of 2020, Father Jim Shea, a Catholic priest who is Ledecky’s godfather, reached out with a request. Would she mind taking part in a virtual fundraising gala for Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization that helps refugees and displaced people? He passed along the request on behalf of Father Leo O’Donovan, the former president of Georgetown University, who knew the family.

ledecky-pool-swimming

Of course, Ledecky said. Afterward, touched by the plight of tens of millions of refugees dealing with both a pandemic and the complete upheaval of their lives, she told Father Shea she wanted to stay involved. That led to her joining former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and other prominent people in reading passages from the book, Dying to Live: Stories from Refugees on the Road to Freedom.

That begat a role with the United Nations on World Refugee Day in June. Part of that was a podcast conversation with swimmer Yusra Mardini, who fled Syria for Turkey, then Greece, and then Germany. Mardini will be competing for the Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo on Saturday. “Thinking about what refugees and immigrants have gone through has really inspired me in the past year,” Ledecky says. “For the refugee Olympians, I hope their stories get told this summer. They’ve really shown a lot of courage.”

When the world first met her as a surprise gold medalist in London at the age of 15, Ledecky was a shy introvert. She’s still not going to be the life of most social settings, although the women known as “Decks” to her teammates (there was a surplus of Katies at Stanford for a time) can drop a playful barb on occasion. But she is extremely smart and attuned to the world around her, and increasingly comfortable with her place in it. “One of the cool things to see in the last couple years is her becoming more of an advocate and a leader,” older brother Michael says. “I’m very proud of how she’s come into her own in that way.”

At age 24 and in her ninth year as a global swimming superstar, Ledecky has found her voice on several societal issues—and found a global cause to campaign for, even in an isolating year. “She’s always been a socially conscious person—that comes from her family,” Shea says. “I’ve known her since she was a baby, and now she’s a Stanford-educated adult and an international person. She is using her platform to be an encouragement to others.”

The challenges faced by refugees and immigrants resonates with Ledecky in large part due to her own family history—“a very American story,” as Michael puts it. Her grandfather, Jaromir Ledecky, arrived in the United States at Ellis Island by boat in 1947, a 20-year-old with a few dollars in his pocket on his way to study at Rutgers. The new, Soviet-backed government in his native Czechoslovakia put pressure on Jaromir to return home, but his family insisted that he stay in the U.S. and avoid the increasingly totalitarian regime. As punishment, Jaromir’s brother was exiled to work in a coal mine.

Jaromir did not get to see his father again for 17 years. He had Czech newspapers mailed to him regularly while building a life in America, a life that included earning both his master’s and Ph.D., taking night courses while working during the day. His sons, Jon and David, became Harvard graduates. David is Katie’s dad. When she was a kid, they visited Czechoslovakia with Jaromir and realized how much he missed his homeland.

On the opposite coast from her parents in Washington, D.C., and Michael in Boston, Katie had a shorter and less severe exile to endure. Thanksgiving and Christmas were “really tough,” said her mother, Mary Gen, who comes from a big family and always prioritized togetherness. The cousins had their traditional gingerbread-house-decorating contest via Zoom, but that’s not the same.

Once both Mary Gen and Katie were fully vaccinated, it was time for a reunion in Palo Alto in late April. “I’m going to do the cooking and cleaning for you,” Mary Gen declared, then set to work on recipes from a cookbook related to the Blue Bloods TV show that Katie had been watching. They went on walks and watched movies, and they went to work replacing a bunch of rare light bulbs from an old chandelier in the apartment. (How many Ledeckys does it take to change a light bulb? Apparently two.)

katie-ledecky-tokyo-lead

In Omaha in June for the Olympic trials, Katie finally reunited with her dad and brother and uncle Jon, who owns the New York Islanders. In 2012 and ‘16, as many as 30 members of the Ledecky clan would attend that meet, but in the latter stages of the pandemic that number was four. That was enough.

The swimmer they watched perform there was still by far the best freestyler in the U.S. at distances of 200 through 1,500 meters. But the times were not as breathtaking as the ones Ledecky has posted in previous years. That’s all prelude for the big show in Tokyo, of course, and she has been brilliant in every Olympic race she’s ever swum.

But the world is getting faster around her. Fact is, Ledecky will be an underdog in her two shorter individual races in Tokyo, the 200 and 400, to 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus. The U.S. 800 freestyle relay team that will feature Ledecky as its star will be an underdog to the Aussies as well. (She will be heavily favored in the 800 and 1,500.)

The rise of Titmus since 2019 as a legitimate mid-distance rival, coupled with the fact that Ledecky hasn’t swum a lifetime top 10 time this year in the 400, 800 or 1,500, does create some drama. And it has led to some “what’s wrong with Katie?” speculation. The answer: nothing.

Her four-gold, one-silver, two-world record performance in Rio five years ago might be the equivalent of Michael Phelps’s Beijing 2008 tour de force—her ultimate masterpiece. Life and swimming continued thereafter at an elite level, in a sport where stars can flare up and flame out as abruptly as bottle rockets—especially on the women’s side. “She’s been the It Girl since 2012,” says three-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel. “There are very few who can hang at that level for that long.”

The 2021 Ledecky is still brilliant while being held hostage, to a degree, by her bulletproof past. “What’s so unfair for her—just the expectation that she has to be the best in everything, has to win everything, has to break a record in everything,” says her coach at Stanford and on the Olympic team, Greg Meehan. “It is absolutely ridiculous.”

ledecky-close-up

While ridiculous, it is not an expectation that is completely foreign to Ledecky herself. Part of her greatness is a belief that she can do something historic every time she dives in a pool. Nobody in the world brings a greater competitive fire to every swim.

SI Recommends

“It’s just constantly chasing another goal,” Ledecky says. “It’s definitely harder to go best times now and I don’t expect that of myself every time I race—but I kind of do, in a way. I kind of approach every race like it’s an important race, and I expect a lot of myself every time. I think that has allowed me to sustain the success I’ve had over the last nine years, never being satisfied and approaching each race with high expectations.”

Thing is, it’s not just the races. Swim coaches love nothing more than talking about epic practice performances, largely because there are so many more practices than meets. (Ledecky usually does 10 workouts a week, sometimes one with the men, and has competed in just four official meets in 2021.) Although specific times she posts in practice tend to be kept secret, there are stories for days about ridiculous things she’s done when almost nobody is watching.

Thursday afternoons at Stanford tend to be when she drops jaws. After spending the morning doing rigorous 200 freestyle work, she will do about half the p.m. workout with the individual medley group (which swims all four strokes), then break off to do her own short-rest distance freestyle set. That’s where the magic happens, busting out elite times when she should be completely exhausted.

That’s what she loves: feeling the burning in the arms and legs, the pit in the stomach, and still pushing through the physical discomfort to complete workouts no other woman is doing. There is a hunger that may seem at odds with her life circumstance: from a well-to-do family, now rich on her own accord, and nine years into a nearly unbroken line of success.

“You can check all the technique boxes and not be anywhere near as good as she is,” Meehan says. “The appetite for work, attacking with that appetite—it’s not just, Give me work. It’s, Give me work and I’m going to go be the best in the pool every day. She’s fairly quiet, fairly reserved, and super friggin’ competitive.”

The task for Meehan has become managing Ledecky’s workload—because at 24, it’s just not as easy to recover from brutal practices as it was at 19. Always one to watch the pace clock during practice to see how she’s doing—she gets the second lane from the clock, no questions asked—she’s going hard all the time. Since her mindset isn’t going to change, the workouts had to change around that. There is more recovery built into the practice plan to keep her from being spent by the end of every week.

Ledecky’s race strategy will be fascinating when meeting up with Titmus in the 200 and 400—particularly the latter. Titmus may simply be too fast to catch at 200 meters, where the Australian’s best time (performed in June) is more than half a second faster than Ledecky’s (performed in 2016). The 400 is where Ledecky owns the world record and seven of the top eight times in history—but Titmus threw down a time last month that is within half a second of that world mark and considerably faster than anything Ledecky has posted this year.

And the 400 is where Titmus shocked the world two years ago in Gwangju, South Korea, by beating Ledecky at the World Championships. It was the first time Ledecky had ever been beaten internationally at a distance longer than 200 meters, and it was part of a nightmarish few days for her.

ledecky-swim-trials

The U.S. team held training camp in Singapore before those championships, and in the final days before heading to Korea, Ledecky began feeling ill. She practiced poorly (for her) and lost a few pounds—and then things got worse in Gwangju.

She qualified first in the 400, but her time was pedestrian by her standards. That night, she was dethroned by Titmus in the 400, locking up noticeably in the final 50 meters. Both women broke four minutes, which is extremely fast, but Ledecky was more than three seconds off her world record in finishing second.

The next morning, she swam the preliminaries of the 1,500, and struggled badly even while posting the fastest time. “I thought I was going to have to get out [during the race],” she says. She scratched the final of the 1,500, scheduled for two nights later, scratched prelims of the 200, and went to the hospital for eight hours of tests. “There were points when I thought I should just go home,” she says.

The Ledeckys declined to discuss specifics of her diagnosis in Korea, but bristled at suggestions in some international quarters that her scratching events was more the result of being beaten than being ill. For her part, Katie emphasized that Titmus deserved credit for the victory. “Ariarne Titmus had a great race and I wouldn’t take anything away from that,” she says. “She earned that.”

Ledecky regrouped to swim a good leg on the 800 freestyle relay a couple of nights later, then gave the 800 a go. Her preliminary swim was an ordeal, finishing second to fellow American Leah Smith in a time that was far off her peak form. Ledecky was so slow leaving the water after that race, another scratch seemed like a possibility.

She regrouped and showed up for the final, but took the race out too aggressively and found herself being passed by Simona Quadarella of Italy. With another stunning defeat materializing, Ledecky had to do a quick recalibration in the middle of the race. Her thought process showed the extent of her swimming IQ.

“I knew at that point I didn’t have too much control over how the race would play out,” she recalls. “I just told myself to stay with her as long as I could, and I just used what I knew about her as a racer and about me. I thought I had the ability to really turn on my kick at the end for a spurt, and I hoped that spurt would be long enough to get ahead.

“I thought I was going to push the last 100, and 100 seemed too early. I got to 75 and thought, nope. So I decided at the last 50 to give it a go.”

Ledecky smoked the last 50 meters in 29.19 seconds, compared with Quadarella’s 30.78. After all the years of being invincible, the queen of distance swimming found herself vulnerable and still won an alley fight on a steamy night in South Korea. She might have to win a couple more in Tokyo.

For all her intelligence, Ledecky is charmingly low on cynicism. She’s much more an idealist, and part of that is a true belief in the Olympics as a force for global good. While many are questioning why the Tokyo Games are happening, Ledecky isn’t one of those. “Even though we’re not having fans this summer, the world is still coming together in this one city for athletes to have the opportunity to pursue their goals they’ve worked for for five years,” she says. “I still think that’s a really beautiful thing.”

Beyond Tokyo, she is presently committed to Paris in 2024—and possibly beyond. “L.A. [in 2028] is pretty intriguing as well,” she says. It would be nice to have one Olympics on U.S. soil during her career.

The more immediate future will center on something she hasn’t done for a very long time: going home to D.C. for an extended fall break with family, including with her grandmother Berta, Jaromir’s widow, who is in her late 80s. After this lonely year-plus, grinding through her own exile of sorts, that’s a needed respite.

More Olympics Coverage:

The Games Go On—With a New Purpose
Meet Team USA Athletes Competing in Tokyo
Previewing Every Sport in the Olympics