WASHINGTON — Katie Ledecky was standing where she has stood twice before over the past 10 years, at the White House, at a Team USA ceremony, a few feet from the President. The greatest female swimmer of all-time was back Wednesday to celebrate another Olympics, last year’s Tokyo Summer Games, in which she won two gold medals and two silvers.
Even though she recently turned 25, and even though she has been at the very top of her sport for a full decade, it’s very likely that will not be the last time she’s at the White House being honored as an Olympian.
The Paris Summer Games, after all, are little more than two years away. Who’s counting? Katie Ledecky, that’s who.
With a new training site at the University of Florida and the unprecedented challenge of practicing every day with some of the world’s top male distance swimmers, Ledecky is in a most unusual position: the Olympic legend who certainly could have retired but instead moved across the country from Stanford to experiment with training with the guys, and is now swimming faster than she has in some time.
“It’s not an experiment because it’s the real thing,” Ledecky said with a laugh on the South Lawn after the Tokyo and Beijing Olympians and Paralympians were honored by President Biden. “It’s something that I knew would help me in my career at this point, training with some of the top male distance swimmers in the world and being in that environment.
“I love to train, I love the work and so I knew that if I put myself in a position where I could really love the work every day and be pushed every day that the sky’s the limit from there.”
So far, the results are very encouraging. At last week’s U.S. world championship trials, Ledecky’s first race was the 800-meter freestyle, her mainstay, the event in which she has won gold at the 2012, 2016 and 2020 (2021) Olympic Games.
She easily won it in 8:09.27, her sixth-fastest performance ever and her fastest time in four years in the event. She was more than three seconds faster last week than she was in Tokyo last summer, when she won the Olympic gold medal in 8:12.57.
“I’m really happy with that time,” Ledecky said after the race. “It is really great to get kick-started on a good note and get my ticket punched for Budapest (site of the world championships in June).”
Then came the 200 freestyle, which she also won handily, swimming faster than she swam in Tokyo, where she finished a disappointing fifth.
She won the 400 freestyle, too, breaking the 4-minute mark and swimming the fastest time in the world this year. The next day, she completed a sweep of her events with a dominating performance in the 1,500 freestyle, again swimming the fastest time in the world this year.
“I’m just continuing to put in the hard work and continuing to keep my eyes focused on what’s ahead,” Ledecky said at the White House. “I don’t really spend a lot of time looking back or celebrating and so when we do get those moments, it’s nice to do that, but I’m very focused forward and looking forward to Budapest worlds in June and getting ready for that and launching that to Paris.”
She is clearly thriving in the training environment in Gainesville, Florida under coach Anthony Nesty, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist. There, she trains daily with Tokyo double gold medalist Bobby Finke and Olympic bronze medalist Kieran Smith, among other distance swimmers. Caeleb Dressel, a sprinter who won five golds in Tokyo, also practices there.
“It’s been fantastic,” Ledecky said. “We motivate each other and push each other and it’s definitely given me a really good push in my events.”
It also doesn’t hurt that because the Tokyo Olympics were postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic, the next Summer Olympics are coming along faster.
“After this summer, it’ll be two years away,” she said. “Next year is the year before the Olympics, so it’s right around the corner. It does make it a little easier; it’s easier compared to the last quad knowing that we had a five-year stretch. It will still pose its challenges, I’m sure, there will be many ups and downs but we’re ready for it.”
Always upbeat, Ledecky seems to be relishing the moment now even more than she usually does. Retirement for her seems like a world away.
“I’ve been healthy,” she said. “I’ve been injury free, and so I don’t know why I would stop now. I still feel like I have a ton of potential and I want to get everything I can out of the sport and give everything I can to the sport in the position that I’m in.”
The interview done, Ledecky smiled and said, “Off to training for me.”
She explained: “Yesterday, I swam 8,000 meters in Gainesville, took a flight (to Washington), landed, drove 10 minutes to swim with Bobby Finke, swam another 8,000, went to the gala, got to bed, came here and now I’m going to go swim before I get on the flight back to Gainesville.”
Needless to say, people listening to that schedule expressed some surprise.
“Getting it in,” Ledecky said. “We have worlds next month so can’t miss a day.”