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Opinion: Katie Ledecky finishes Tokyo Olympics on high note, but may not be finished with Olympics

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TOKYO — Katie Ledecky is 24 now, not 15 or 19. She feels pressure she never felt before and faces expectations she once could ignore. Her opponents are younger, and when the race finishes, they are closer. The victories, when they come, are harder.

But they still come.

For the second time at these Games, Ledecky took control of one of her signature events and dominated it, winning the gold medal in the women’s 800-meter freestyle with a wire-to-wire performance Saturday morning in 8:12.57.

Her 20-year-old rival, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, came on with a rush at the end to finish just 1.26 seconds behind for the silver, but Ledecky had built a two-second lead prior to the final lap so Titmus was never a threat to pass her.

Just as in the inaugural women’s 1,500 freestyle earlier in the week, this was Ledecky’s race to win, and she won it.

Katie Ledecky shows off her gold medal after the 800-meter freestyle on Saturday.
Katie Ledecky shows off her gold medal after the 800-meter freestyle on Saturday.

“I really just wanted to end on a really good note,” she said afterward. “I just knew it would linger with me if I ended on a bad note. I tried to use that as motivation to finish on the best note possible.”

The two individual gold medals she won here (along with two silvers), added to the one she won in London in 2012 and the three from Rio in 2016, gave her six in all, the most ever won by a female swimmer at the Olympics.

And, by winning the Olympic 800 freestyle for the third consecutive time, she became one of only four swimmers in history to three-peat in an Olympic event.

“I saw a statistic that said nobody’s ever three-peated (in the 800 free),” she said. “That’s been in the back of my mind for so many years now, both in a good way and also sometimes that thought gets to you. You think, oh, I wonder if there’s a reason why no one has three-peated in the event.”

In many ways, what Ledecky did here this week was more impressive than Rio.

She won the two golds and two silvers in the most unusual Olympics ever, after training in neighborhood backyard pools in Northern California at the start of the pandemic.

She did it while racing more meters than anyone has ever swam at an Olympics. Her range is extraordinary, from the 200 free to the first-ever 1,500 free, meaning she ended up swimming 6,200 competitive meters here this week including preliminaries, semifinals, finals and a relay.

As a comparison, Michael Phelps swam 3,300 meters when he won his eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

She did all this with the weight of the world on her shoulders as one of the most recognizable names at these Games, at a time when we have become acutely aware of just how much of a toll that pressure can take on athletes who are veterans in their sport but still quite young in life.

Rio was remarkable. Ledecky won a total of four golds and a silver. She won the 200 and 400 freestyle, both of which she lost this time. Her margins of victory in 2016 were jaw-dropping. The photos at the finish were legendary: no one else was in the picture.

This time, she had company at the finish line: young, hungry rivals salivating to race, and perhaps defeat, their role model and idol. And she had Titmus, one of the finest swimmers of this generation. She lost to her twice and beat her once, with a U.S. 4x200 freestyle relay victory over Australia as well.

There is a graciousness about Ledecky that is as unrelenting as her freestyle stroke. Several times Saturday, she praised Titmus for her performance barely seconds into answering a question about her own victory.

Titmus returned the favor. “What she’s achieved at three Olympics, I mean, I would dream of that,” she said of Ledecky.

As Ledecky faced her daily challenges here this week, she opened up more than she has before about what she has been facing.

“I’m always striving to be better than I’ve ever been,” she said after winning the 1,500, “and it’s not easy when your times are world records in some events and you can’t just keep dropping times every single swim. … I’m really tough on myself. I literally approach each race with the belief in myself that I can swim a best time, and that’s pretty darned tough.

“It’s a real blessing and a curse that I have that attitude. It’s what served me so well over the years and it’s why I’ve broken so many world records and swum so many fast times. It’s also a really hard attitude to maintain for nine years. I’ve gained perspective over the years. I’ve really learned a lot over the years. The times might not be my best times but I’m really really happy that I have a gold medal around my neck right now.”

As she arrived at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre for the 800 free, her final race of these Olympics, she told herself to "soak it all in.” She had the same thought in Rio. “You just never know. It’s never a guarantee you’ll get to do this again.”

That said, she is planning to do this again. Ledecky said she is “definitely” going to try to compete in Paris in 2024, and “maybe beyond,” she said, meaning a home Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028, which she said is “kind of out there and appealing.

“I’m still young, 24 is not that old,” she said. “I still love the sport, I love it more and more every year. I love the training, love the day to day.”

Her eyes lit up at the thought. Ledecky was done with her third Olympics, but the Olympics just might not be done with her yet.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Katie Ledecky finishes Tokyo Games with four medals