Laureus World Sports Awards: Katie Ledecky on dealing with expectations, her amazing 2017 and goals for the future

For anyone who's followed Katie Ledecky's career there is not even a shadow of doubt that she ranks among the best swimmers of all time.

At the Rio Olympics, she won gold medals in the 800m freestyle, 400m freestyle, 200m freestyle and 200m freestyle relay events, besides a silver in the 400m freestyle relay competition.

Such has been her dominance in the women’s freestyle events, and so high are the expectations saddled on her shoulders, that at last year’s World Championships in Budapest, what caught everyone’s eye was the news that the American had finished second in a race — in the 200m event after Italy’s Federica Pellegrini.

File image of Katie Ledecky. AFP

File image of Katie Ledecky. AFP

The 20-year-old's fledgling career is not just about the medals she's been racking up, or even the world records (she holds the 400m freestyle, 800m freestyle and 1,500m freestyle records) that she has claimed so far. Propping up Ledecky’s claim for perpetual greatness are the timings she has been beating her rivals by: At the 2015 World Championships, which can sometimes have a tougher field than the Olympics itself, she outstripped her closest opponent in the 800m freestyle race by a seemingly improbable distance of over 10 seconds. At the 1500m freestyle event, her victory margin was over 14 seconds.

With another excellent year behind her — where she won gold medals in the 400m freestyle, 800m freestyle, 1500m freestyle, 400m freestyle relay, 800m freestyle relay besides the much talked-about 200m freestyle silver medal — it was hardly a surprise that she found herself nominated for the Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Award. The other contenders vying for the prestigious awards are skier Mikaela Shiffrin, tennis aces Serena Williams and Garbine Muguruza besides athletes like Allyson Felix and Caster Semenya.

With the Laureus Awards to be held on 27 February, Ledecky spoke to select journalists from around the world early on Saturday. Excerpts:

Congratulations on your amazing performance at the 2017 World Championships. Can you pick one particular highlight?

It's difficult to pick one particular highlight or event. But I would say just being a part of Team USA at that competition, one of our most successful world championships, and to be a part of that is pretty special. I had a whole number of events that I was competing in. I took it one day at a time and did my best to represent my country every time I got up on the blocks, and you know, I can't pick one particular event, but I think the week as a whole was a pretty special week for all of us on Team USA.

Now you've been nominated by the world's media for the Sportswoman of the Year Award for the second straight year. What's your reaction to that?

Yeah, it's a great honour. I believe this is the third straight year that I have been nominated, and it's always an honour to be nominated and recognised by the international media, and Laureus For Good, they do so much for people around the world, and in sports. So it's an honour to be recognised by such a prestigious group, and it's an honour to be nominated alongside some other tremendous athletes.

Does it make the Laureus Award more prestigious because so many legends like Mark Spitz, Dawn Fraser are Academy members, while Michael Phelps is an award winner. Does it give it a bit of history, a bit of pedigree?

Yes, for sure. I really respect those swimmers as athletes and what they have accomplished across their careers, and to be nominated for this award is a great honour and knowing what those swimmers have accomplished and being nominated for the same award is something that's really special.

It is a big American year, really, for the women’s category of the Laureus Sports Award. There's yourself, Serena Williams, Mikaela Shiffrin and Allyson Felix. That's a pretty impressive list of four, wouldn't you agree?

Yes, of course. It's been amazing to see what those four have accomplished, or those three others have accomplished. I know Mikaela Shiffrin is at the Olympics right now, and I'm sure she's going to do really well there, so that will be exciting to see.

Can you compare the world championships in Budapest with the Rio Olympics? What's your feeling about that?

They are two very different competitions. For a swimmer, the Olympics is always what we are gearing up for and every other meet is kind of leading up to that and setting yourself up and testing your swimming at each point in the year at the end of each summer. So Rio was something that I had been working towards for four years after London, and it was just an amazing experience, an amazing feeling to accomplish the goals that I had set out to accomplish for those four years.

Then following Rio, I took just a very short break, only about two weeks off out of the water. Then I moved out from Bethesda, Maryland to Stanford to start my college career, to start studying at Stanford and swimming for the collegiate team. So all throughout this past year, I was training with the team and competing a lot and kind of starting to reset those goals that I had. I had met my goals in Rio. I was in the process of setting some new goals and working towards those. In Budapest, I was fortunate enough to swim a whole number of events again, the same events that I swam in Kazan at the World Championships in 2015, plus an additional relay.

So to come away with five golds and a silver was a highlight of my year and something I was really happy with, especially just coming off of all the transitions that I had over the past year and coming off of that high from Rio. So these are two slightly different competitions with a bit different feeling, but I was happy that I was able to meet some big goals at both of those meets.

Doing so well in so many of these global events, it builds up momentum, I guess?

For sure. After I got one gold in London in 2012, I kind of made it a point, a goal, to continue to be able to attend those big international swim meets and compete for the gold every time I'm up on the blocks and been able to lower my times and break some world records along the way, and have just tried to maintain some consistency across all of my different events.

If we could just talk now about the future, what are your targets now? Presumably Tokyo Olympics, or do you kind of take it one meet at a time?

I take it one meet at a time. Right now, I'm focused on the collegiate season for Stanford University. I do have some goals for 2020 and I'm hoping that I'll be in Tokyo, but I know it's a process to get there and it's always a challenge to qualify for the Olympics, especially with how strong swimming is in the United States. So I know I'll have to continue training really hard and set myself up as best as I can for the 2020 Olympic trials.

You said you have goals. Could you share what they are?

I'd rather not share them, but I have some time goals, some place goals and just some overall things that I think will continue to keep me really excited about training and about the sport, and looking forward to the next couple years and seeing where I can go from here.

Just an historical thing: No female swimmer has ever won gold medals in four Olympics. Obviously we have Tokyo in 2020 and then Paris four years later...  You're only 20. Could you still see yourself competing in Paris, or is the life of a top-class swimmer limited these days with all the training involved?

It's hard to know. You know, I think I take it four years at a time. So right now, it's just focusing on 2020 and the years leading up to it, and then after 2020, I'll kind of reevaluate things and see if I want to continue swimming and continue working towards 2024 or beyond. But again, that's something that I'll think about later. That's not something I really can think about now. I think I would love to be in Paris, whether I'm competing or not. I just learned a little bit of French, so hopefully I can compete in a meet in France at some point, and then 2028, the Olympics are in Los Angeles. I'll be old by then. I'll be 31, but you never know.

The fact you've won so many medals, does that take the pressure, obviously even at 20, you're very experienced in the sport, does that take the pressure off you or sometimes can it put the pressure on you? Do people expect you to win four or five gold medals every time you take part in a global event?

I think some people have expectations for me. But I think, you know, the biggest thing for me is not focusing on those external expectations. As long as I focus on my personal goals and my own personal expectations for each meet, that's the only thing that matters to me. So, whether people expect me to win a certain number of medals or go a certain time, that's up to them. It's not something I'll focus on.  I'd certainly love to continue to compete at this level and continue to improve every time I get up on the blocks, but the fact of the matter is, it gets hard and it gets harder and harder for me as I get faster. So, I'm basically competing against the world record holder every time that I race now that I have the world record in the 400, 800 and mile. I just do my best every time I get in the water for training, and I'm pretty confident that that will set me up for success in the meets if I know that I'm working as hard as I possibly can.

Do you feel sorry for your rivals when you review your wins? Because usually there is an embarrassing distance between you and them.

I don't know how to answer that. You know, I don't really pay attention to the distance. I'm just always trying to put together my fastest race, my personal fastest race, and so you never know what other competitors are going to do when you get up on the blocks. You can only control what you can control, so I always like to just get out there and race my competitors and do it as fast as I can.

Were you a little frustrated because even though you had done wonderful things in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, there was the shadow of Michael Phelps, the coming back of Michael Phelps and all the medals that he got. Do you believe that the next Olympic Games, you will be receiving more spotlight?

Well, first off, I will never be disappointed by being in the shadow of Michael Phelps. It was something we were all so happy about, that he was continuing to swim.  He had retired and then come back to the sport and was able to get back to that top level, and win a whole number of gold medals in Rio. We were all so happy for him. I just felt so lucky to have been on a team with him, not just in London but then again in Rio; and just to learn from him and see how he goes about his racing and his preparation for all of the different races that he swam. I don't know if my success would have been possible without seeing his success and really observing and learning from him over the years.  So, that's what I would say, first off.

I think looking to the future, I don't really pay too much attention to expectations or pressure. I just know that as long as I continue to work hard in the pool and focus on the important things in my life, which right now are swimming and school and I continue to keep close to the people that are really meaningful to me, like my family and my coaches and my teammates and my friends, all the people that have supported me over the years; as long as I keep them close and continue to focus on what I need to focus on, that I'll be well prepared for what's to come over the next couple years, whether that's in Tokyo or not.  I think as long as I keep doing those things and preparing as well as I can, I'll be really happy with that preparation.


Updated Date: Feb 10, 2018 18:51 PM

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