The Olympics (might) start in a year. Katie Ledecky is trying to prepare as if they will

Henry Bushnell
·4-min read

Katie Ledecky would be in Japan right now. Perhaps sleeping. Perhaps exploring the Olympic Village. Perhaps swimming, acclimating to the aquatics center, a couple days before her first event.

Instead, on Thursday, the five-time gold medalist rose before the sun did in Palo Alto, California. She threw on a gray Adidas tank top. She settled in front of a blank wall in her apartment. And she jumped from one sponsor-arranged video interview to the next. The occasion? One year til’ Tokyo. Hopefully.

“There have been moments, here and there,” when the full weight of Olympic postponement has hit her, Ledecky told Yahoo Sports. “But I think, as a whole, I've been able to really shift my mindset to 2021.”

All Olympians are trying. For many reasons, it’s easier said than done. In March, when the Games were pushed back, uncertainty spread. Ledecky, at first, couldn’t even find a place to swim. She eventually connected with a local family. For months, she, teammate Simone Manuel, and coach Greg Meehan would enter the family’s backyard through a “little side gate.” They’d place their gear and belongings at a distance from one another. They’d work out in a two-lane, 25-yard pool. “And there were some hard days,” Meehan admits, “where [Ledecky and Manuel] just kind of felt like, Alright, the next thing feels so far away.”

Now they’re back at Stanford though. Several college swimmers have joined them. They follow strict coronavirus-related protocols. “It’s been great,” Meehan said. “For peace of mind.”

DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 04: Katie Ledecky reacts after winning the Women LC 1500m Freestyle on Day One of the TYR Pro Swim Series at Des Moines on March 04, 2020 at the MidAmerican Energy Aquatic Center at the Wellmark YMCA in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Katie Ledecky, who has won five Olympic gold medals, is preparing as if the Games next summer are going to happen as planned. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

But there are no official races. No actual meets. The next, Meehan said, likely won’t be until November. “Potentially October ... But so much has to go well between now and then for those things to actually happen.”

“And I think that's been the difficult part for them,” he continued. “We're all planners. When you don't know what to plan for, that makes it harder. They're used to racing every six weeks.” Ledecky thinks, and hopes, “in the coming months, we'll have racing opportunities.” Meehan said they’d try to get creative. He mentioned the possibility of unofficial competitions with locals. “We've tried to avoid being too monotonous,” he said.

In a way, they see the extra year as opportunity. Ledecky is using it to learn, in and out of a pool. “It buys us a little more time to get better in X, Y and Z,” Meehan says of Ledecky’s swimming.

Ledecky, meanwhile, spends significant chunks of her non-sports time in online classes at Stanford. She took four in the spring, including one called Global Change and Emerging Infectious Disease. She’s taking four more this summer – a popular computer science course, two in philosophy, and one in accounting. She bounces between multiple screens or windows to keep up with lectures, notes and life. She’s a psychology major, and “I think it's given me a really interesting perspective on everything that we're going through [during the pandemic], and how we behave,” she said.

On a personal level, she misses U.S. teammates. (It’s the first summer since prior to 2012 she hasn’t been with them.) She misses family, with whom she’s communicated regularly on video calls, but not in person. She’s “concerned” about their safety, and about her own. “I think everyone is [worried about COVID],” she said.

She’s nonetheless focused. Prior to the pandemic, her entire progression toward Tokyo had been meticulously thought out for over two years. Some of the plans have simply been repurposed for 2021. “We're trying to plan that the Games are gonna [happen] as scheduled,” Meehan said.

But nobody is sure that they will. Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, said Wednesday that, “If the current situation continues, we couldn’t” hold them. Sources throughout the Olympic movement speak with varying levels of confidence.

And Ledecky? Is she worried that Tokyo 2020 might not happen at all, not even next summer?

“Ah, we'll see,” she said. “I think if that decision is made, it's going to be because it's a very necessary decision at that moment. So, it's – it's out there, we'll see. I'm glad that right now, we have it on, and that we've got something to really work towards.”

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