And now, Katie Ledecky rests.
After spending so much time in the grind, the finest and most dedicated freestyler of all time has finally emerged from that tunnel of dedication. She had two gold medals, two silver medals, one fifth-place result, and no regrets from these Summer Olympics.
This has been the hardest of her three Olympics, both in terms of competition and workload. Ariarne Titmus of Australia completed her ascendancy to worthy rival of Ledecky, with the two splitting four matchups—Titmus winning the 200- and 400-meter freestyles, while Ledecky defeated her in the 800 and anchored a 4 x 200-meter relay that upset the Australians while losing gold to the Chinese. And with the addition of the 1,500-meter freestyle to the docket, Ledecky put in a withering 6,200 meters of competition.
Factor in a pandemic that prolonged the run-up to this Olympics by a year, and it’s a lot. She’s ready for life on the other side of a five-year haul, ready to reconnect with the world after isolating herself for more than a year.
For the first time since the pandemic began, she wants to return home—not to her apartment in Palo Alto, but to her childhood home in Washington, D.C. She wishes to sleep in her own bed, have a breakfast sandwich from Izzy’s Deli, and watch the Nationals play.
She has some urgency to visit her grandmothers, one in her 90s and the other her 80s, the latter in declining health. She wants to visit the schools she attended while growing up, to thank them for all the support during these Olympics, because that’s how Ledecky rolls. Her loyalty runs deep and true.
She may stay home for a good while. For now, and for the first time in a very long time, she’s not locked into a schedule. She will not be waking up chasing something. The fall is, for once, presently undefined. “I think I’ll just let this sit for a little bit,” she says.
Her revelatory gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle in 2012 …
Following her historic gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics, Ledecky jumped right into the following Olympic quadrennial, eager to capitalise on her success. She couldn’t wait to get started on 2016, which resulted in a continuous streak of dominance. Then, following the Rio Olympics, she swiftly immersed herself in college life and training, kicking off the next phase.
She wants to go to Palisades, her old pool, and have some fun. Play some ping-pong and water basketball with her older brother, Michael. When she’s near a pool, however, she knows what happens: the itch returns. It can be brushed aside for a while, but it can never be denied.
“I get very eager,” she says. Maybe there won’t be “hard laps,” but anyone visiting Palisades in the month to come might find a legend turning in a light workout.
Part of her brilliance is her ability to maintain that excitement while avoiding the fatigue that plagues so many professional swimmers. Until Ariarne Titmus of Australia entered the picture, her only rivals were the black line at the bottom of the pool and the ticking clock in her head as she attempted to break her own unbeatable records.
That became increasingly difficult since 2016, when she created her career masterpiece in Rio. Ledecky won four gold medals and one silver there, setting two world records and winning her longest events by jaw-dropping expanses of open blue water. Nobody was close.
She set one world record since then, in the 1,500-meter in 2018. But from that point forward the chase became more futile, despite her unceasing efforts. She always went to the starting blocks expecting to swim better than ever, but rarely was rewarded.
The effort and ambition would never waver, but there would have to be a readiness to accept lower results. “I began [after 2016] with the objective of running in the same times that I did in Rio, if not quicker. Over the years, I’ve gained some insight into how difficult that is…. If I didn’t go those times again, I wasn’t going to be too hard on myself. That hit me like a tonne of bricks. I am aware of the benchmark I have set for myself.
That realization can fuel her next swimming chapter—and there will be a next swimming chapter. Ledecky has consistently said for a long time that she will swim through the Paris Olympics in 2024, but for some reason that became a news flash in an NBC interview Saturday.
“It is a lot of hard work, but I think I love the training as much, if not more, than the racing,” she said. So she will, once again, embrace the grind—but here’s hoping she sticks to her plan to slow down for longer than usual.
If Katie Ledecky gets in that Palisades Pool in the next month, I hope it’s on a raft and not with cap and goggles on. She’s earned the break.
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