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Why 2021 Katie Ledecky, despite fewer golds, is the best Katie Ledecky yet

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TOKYO — There was a time when Katie Ledecky set her sights on her former self. Toward the beginning of her third Olympic quad, with world records in her back pocket and gold medals around her neck, Ledecky, a prolific goal-setter, wanted to go faster. Wanted to outswim her Rio 2016 excellence. Wanted to chase down personal bests.

And then there was a time, between then and now, when Ledecky realized just how hard that would be.

It is, she explained, the “blessing and curse” of greatness. Ledecky won four golds in Rio. She did so because of a burning desire and commitment to one-up herself, constantly, race after race. So when she dove back into pools at Stanford that fall, she targeted her own records. She firmly believed she could shatter them. That belief is why she owned them in the first place. The pursuit was narrow, determined, and at times, seemed to be pass-or-fail.

And if it had remained that way, Ledecky’s 2021 Olympics would have been a failure.

Ledecky, over the past week here in Tokyo, didn’t touch her Rio times. She didn’t break world records. She won only two golds. A reporter asked her Saturday night if she was “bummed” about that. The haul didn’t match expectations that she and others had set for herself. And perhaps there was a time in Ledecky’s life when it would have brought disappointment.

But this Katie Ledecky, the one who spoke thoughtfully and honestly all week here, is different.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Katie Ledecky of Team USA poses with her two Gold and two Silver medals after a giving a press conference to the media during the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Katie Ledecky of Team USA poses with her two Gold and two Silver medals after a giving a press conference to the media during the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

She isn’t quite the dominant swimmer she once was. But she’s the best Katie Ledecky yet.

A few years ago, Ledecky reformatted her goal-setting. She recognized the standard she’d set for herself was impossibly high. So she added layers. The world records, she said, were and are “still in the back of my head.” She hasn’t stopped hunting them. “But,” she said, “I also gained perspective over the years. … I knew that I wasn't gonna beat myself up if I didn't go those times again. And that was a big realization for me, and a big milestone.”

It’s why she so thoroughly enjoyed this Olympic experience. She relished her showdowns with Ariarne Titmus. She cherished the opportunity to mentor younger teammates like Erica Sullivan and Katie Grimes. She had some tough swims, namely the 200-meter final, her first at a major international meet that ended off the podium. But she was proud of her meet. Satisfied with most of her swims. The entire week left her “really happy.”

And isn’t that, in the end, what sport is about? Happiness? Self-fulfillment? Joy shared with friends and family? Indelible memories? Pride?

Ledecky will leave these Olympics perhaps without as many gold medals as she wanted, but with all of that.

And perhaps she isn’t the swimmer she was at 19. Perhaps she never will be again. But she is immeasurably more mature, more introspective, more able to savor these moments that can’t ever be replicated.

Up until this point, Ledecky explained, her career had moved at warp speed. “I've had three very different Olympic experiences,” she said. In 2012, she was a kid, a surprise qualifier and then a surprise champion. Out of nowhere, she accomplished a “far-fetched goal” and won the 800 in London.

Over the next four years, she dedicated herself to the grind. She improved, rapidly, vastly. And if she’s being honest, entering Rio, “I don't want to say this in a cocky way, but I felt pretty sure of gold in the 400 and the 800,” she said.

She won both, plus the 200 and a relay, of course, and then she focused on procuring sheets and decorations for her freshman-year college dorm room. She went off to Stanford for two years, then went pro, and watched as overseas challengers emerged to push her. She felt ready for that challenge in Tokyo. She prepared to swim more meters in an Olympic competition pool this week than anybody in history, and she knew, unlike in Rio, that each of her four individual events would be difficult.

And that’s why Ledecky took them all on. “I appreciate the challenge,” she said. “If it was easy, I wouldn't do it.”

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Katie Ledecky of Team United States reacts after winning the Women's 800m Freestyle final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Katie Ledecky of Team United States reacts after winning the Women's 800m Freestyle final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

But she also adapted her mind to understand that the challenge wouldn’t, in all likelihood, leave her unbeaten. She knew going in, then, that these Olympics were not a pass-fail course. It had become clear throughout 2021 that Ledecky did not have 2016 times in her — and that Titmus, in two events, might.

But why let that ruin the experience?

Ledecky told herself: “OK, you don't have to hit this time, but if you win gold, be happy about it. Don't beat yourself up about it.”

She will leave Tokyo full of happiness, and ready for some time off. She’ll visit grandparents. She’ll take a long-awaited trip home to Maryland. She’ll duck into Ize’s Deli for an omelet. Maybe get to a Washington Nationals game. Definitely sleep in her old bed.

She’ll rehash memories from Tokyo, and from the years that preceded it. She’ll breathe, and inhale all that the Olympics have given her. She still remembers being in Rio and thinking, “I don't know if I'll be in Tokyo.” She doesn’t take any of this for granted.

She never even dreamed of the Olympics when she started swimming at age 6. “It's hard just to make an Olympics, it's hard to win a medal,” she said. “To have the opportunity to go to three now, and to win medals, and to hear your national anthem play, it's amazing.”

This is the perspective that Ledecky has gained over the years. Swimming is not an all-or-nothing battle with herself. It’s to be enjoyed, and Ledecky is enjoying it as much as ever. She’ll gun for Paris 2024, and maybe for Los Angeles 2028.

She’ll spend a few weeks out of the water for now, but it will still call her. She isn’t burnt out. Her family still belongs to a local pool. “I'll probably still be splashing around during my break, when I get home,” Ledecky said. “I'm not gonna be doing hard laps. But I'll be playing water basketball and ping pong with my brother if he's home.

“And maybe a couple laps,” she continued, reconsidering. “It's hard to keep me out of the water. I sleep better when I swim.”

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