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Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, and the impossible pressure of greatness: ‘A blessing and a curse’

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TOKYO — Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles are two different people who feel different things, and before we talk about what they have in common, inescapable pressure of their own necessary creation, we must acknowledge this.

“I would never want to speak for Simone, or say that I know what she's feeling,” Ledecky said here Wednesday. “Because none of us do.”

“But, I understand it,” she continued, and then she offered wisdom from a world that only a few human beings have ever visited.

Greatness, and the attitude it requires, Ledecky explained, “is a real blessing and a curse.”

She was speaking after her first gold medal of the 2020 Olympics, which came at the third attempt. She was also speaking after Biles, a fellow 24-year-old GOAT, had won a silver. But Biles, of course, had pulled herself out of the gymnastics team final here in Tokyo, and later out of the individual all-around, her mental health suffering under “the weight of the world.” 

So reporters wanted to know what the weight of the world feels like. What TV cameras shoved in faces immediately after intense competition feel like. What millions of eyes and social media followers feel like.

“I've experienced that on days like today,” Ledecky said. “And yeah, you can feel like … every move you make is being watched, and judged.”

Katie Ledecky would never speak for Simone Biles, but she knows the type of pressure Biles faces, both from the outside and within, all too well. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Katie Ledecky would never speak for Simone Biles, but she knows the type of pressure Biles faces, both from the outside and within, all too well. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

It’s a feeling that has overwhelmed Biles at times over eight years of perfection. She and Ledecky and many others have tried to ignore it. “Brush it off,” Biles said. Block it out. Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus said she deleted all social media apps from her phone, in an attempt to create something of a self-care bubble.

But the eyes still exist. The expectations still loom. Biles, especially, has struggled to evade them. She is, naturally, a “pleaser.” She cares what other people think. She worries about letting them down. She fears failure. She has tried to push the boundaries of gymnastics “for myself,” but, she said Tuesday night, “I came here, and I felt like I was still doing it for other people.”

But here’s the thing, Ledecky explained: All elite athletes need pressure to drive them. Some find it externally. Others find it within, or put it on themselves. Biles does that. Ledecky does that. What she really means, though, “when I say that the most pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself, I mean my past performances,” she explained. They exert the pressure. “I'm always striving to be my best, and to be better than I've ever been.

“And, you know,” she said, “it's not easy when your times are world records in some events.”

And here we arrive at the dilemma that GOATs engineer for themselves. To be great, they have to push themselves beyond what they’ve already accomplished. When they do, they set bars that are impossibly high and only get higher. “You can't just keep dropping time every single swim,” Ledecky said. “That's kind of the attitude that I have when I approach each race, though.” She tries to break world records at local meets in February. It’s why she’s so successful, why she’s won gold medals, why she’s broken world records.

“​​It's also a really hard attitude to maintain for nine years,” she said. Expectations are never met. Nobody’s ever satisfied. The headline is never “Katie Ledecky wins silver.” It’s “Katie Ledecky settles for silver,” or “Katie Ledecky loses.” Biles has had similar experiences. Journalists once told her they’d written stories about her victories before competitions even started. At times, first-place finishes wouldn’t bring happiness, only relief.

Ledecky tries to laugh off the framing, but she sees it, and knows that at times, it’s the narrative that her own head has crafted too. After finishing fifth in the 200-meter freestyle here on Wednesday, she went to the warm-down pool and her head “went blank for a little bit.”

Then she went out and won a gold medal, and the release of all that pressure seemed to contort her face. She grabbed the lane line. She closed her eyes. She’d thought about the “power of the gold medal, and what I've experienced over the years, and how I've gone to children's hospitals, and met wounded warriors, and their faces light up when they see the gold medal, and that means more to me than anything.” That’s why she wanted it so bad. Now she had it.

And yet, in the hours afterward, Ledecky sensed that people were feeling sorry for her. Wondering why she hadn’t hit the heights that both outsiders and herself had envisioned. She gave a news conference. She teared up. She got introspective. Then she left, as an eight-time Olympic medalist, to submit to a drug test. She walked along a sidewalk, hands in sweatsuit pockets, face as expressionless as could be.

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