“I build in some time for the bus to be late,” she says. “You want to be careful about that at the Olympics.”
About 60 to 90 minutes before the race, she’d warm up in the pool, change into her racing suit, then get back in the pool for another short warm-up about 30 minutes before her call time—the last stop before the race itself, when athletes check in at the ready room.
2. Streamline the recovery process.
To successfully tackle record-setting swimming yardage, Ledecky leans big on recovery.
Then she’ll start her “warm-down,” which takes 20 to 30 minutes and includes 1,000 to 1,500 meters of “really easy swimming,” she says.
Ledecky tries to eat a full meal about an hour after the race. In Tokyo, the athletes actually had their meals ready for them at the pool, so they could eat their dinner before they hopped back on the bus or on their ride back to the Olympic Village. That, says Ledecky, helped cut down on wasted time and allowed her to get some extra minutes of much-needed sleep.
Other than making sure to eat and hydrate during this post-race window, Ledecky says she doesn’t follow any specific dietary guidelines.
“I just go based on feel and I want to make sure I’m never hungry,” she says. “You want to stay ahead of any hunger that you might feel.”
3. Focus on what’s next—not what already happened.
A packed swim schedule can mean tons of races to ruminate on. But that kind of thinking, as Ledecky learned, can take away from the focus you need to direct at what’s right in front of you.
“I try to take it one race at a time and not think too far ahead,” she says.
That mindset was especially vital in Ledecky’s toughest stretch in Tokyo: the 70-minute turnaround between the 200-meter freestyle final and the 1,500-meter freestyle final.
It was a quick amount of time to physically recharge, and Ledecky couldn’t waste any of that time on unhealthy rumination. In the 200 meters, Ledecky finished a disappointing fifth, while her rival—Australia’s Ariarne Titmus—won gold. The day before, in the 400-meter freestyle, Ledecky earned silver to Titmus’s gold. (Back in 2016, it was Ledecky who took home that double gold.)
Ledecky had to find a way to refocus on the 1,500 meters and the chance to win a historic first Olympic medal in the event.
“After the first race, I shift my mindset to the second race almost immediately,” she says. “Whether the first race goes really well or not as well as I would have hoped, I know that I have to move on from it really quickly and approach the second race like it’s my first of that day and my only race of that day.”
Not only did Ledecky, who is the world record holder in the event, successfully dominate the race, but she also led a 1-2 U.S. sweep with fellow American Erica Sullivan.
“It was really special,” she says of her historic gold medal victory. “I definitely was thinking of all the female U.S. swimmers that hadn’t had that opportunity [to race the 1,500 meters at the Olympics], and we wanted to get Team USA started on the best possible note for that race.”
4. Lean into the joy and power of camaraderie.
When asked to name her favorite Olympic moment, Ledecky doesn’t mention her 1,500-meter freestyle gold or her 800-meter three-peat, which was her very last race of these Games.