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Katie Ledecky Wins Her 1st Gold In Tokyo And Reflects On The Pressure Athletes Face

U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky embraces teammate Erica Sullivan after winning the women's 1500-meter freestyle.
Matthias Schrader
U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky embraces teammate Erica Sullivan after winning the women's 1500-meter freestyle.

Updated July 28, 2021 at 12:01 AM ET

TOKYO — Katie Ledecky has won her first gold of the Tokyo Olympics, in the 1,500 meter freestyle race. She took silver in her first race of the Games, and then missed out on medaling in the 200 meter freestyle.

After the race, she talked about the immense pressure she feels to meet the sky-high expectations on her — and the pressure she places on herself. Other stars such as Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are opening up about the difficulties of being in the spotlight.

"I am always striving to be my best and to be better than I've ever been, and it's not easy when your times are world records in some events," Ledecky told reporters after her race. She holds world records in three freestyle distances: 400 meters, 800 meters and 1,500 meters.

In the 1,500 meter final – the first time this event has been held at the Olympics – Ledecky dominated. The long-distance swim is nearly a mile, and Ledecky was in the lead for the entire time.

She smacked the water down in celebration at the end of the arduous 15 minute swim, and hugged her teammate Erica Sullivan, who took silver.

Victory after a mixed start to the Olympics

The biggest star of U.S. swimming has not had the start to these Olympics that she wanted.

In her first race, the 400 meter freestyle, she was narrowly edged out of gold by her chief rival, Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus.

Titmus beat her again on Wednesday morning Tokyo time in the 200 meter freestyle. Ledecky did not make it to the podium in that race, placing fifth. For the first time in her Olympic career, she did not win a medal.

"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, or feel like silver or any other medal besides gold is a disappointment or anything. I would much rather people be concerned about people who are really, truly struggling in life," Ledecky said. "Just because I've won golds all the time leading into that doesn't mean the silver doesn't mean something to me."

She said that over the years, she has experienced the power of the gold medal in the way people react to them.

"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 — the ability to put a smile on someone's face," Ledecky said, her voice breaking with emotion.

"I just really wanted to get a gold medal to have that opportunity again."

Ledecky supports Biles and athletes taking care of their mental health

Ledecky said she knows the pressure of having the world's attention on her, after U.S. star gymnast Simone Biles suddenly pulled out of the team gymnastics final on Tuesday to focus on her mental health.

"I would never want to speak for Simone or say I know what she's feeling, because none of us do," she said. "But I understand it. We're at the highest level, we have the most eyes on us," Ledecky added, speaking about all Olympians.

She said she hopes Biles continues to do what's best for her, with the support of her teammates and coaches. "Mental health is so important, physical health is so important, and it's no different being Olympians."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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