STANFORD, Calif. – Katie Ledecky knows where she has the most room for improvement – and it’s not in the pool.
Sure, she’d like to work on her 200-meter freestyle, which figures to be the toughest of her Olympic titles to defend.
But the five-time Olympic swimming champion also needs to work on staying out of the hospital if she wants to win multiple gold medals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
A stomach bug or virus “just kind of wiped me out during the meet,” Ledecky, 22, said of the recent world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, where she won one gold and two silver medals, but had to withdraw from two events. She spent seven hours at a hospital.
“I know that as much as I was doing my part to try to stay healthy that I can always improve on that,” Ledecky said with a laugh. “And you know I’ll be doing a good job of that next year.”
This week she’s attending the Phillips 66 National Championships strictly as a spectator and said she felt “pretty good” since returning from South Korea but is taking a break and undergoing “some extra tests just to make sure that I’m completely healthy going into this year.
She also is trying to learn as much as she can from the past week in order to move on from it.
“I just learned a lot about managing a little bit of adversity and managing my emotions and energy and just prioritizing my health in the moment.”
Ledecky said she feels like she does a good job getting enough rest, hydrating and recovering. But with athletes staying in a village at the world championships, just as they will in Tokyo, there were additional variables.
Ledecky used hand sanitizer, but she said she couldn’t control if everyone else did.
“I can’t control if there is something in the food, or if the food wasn’t being cooked properly,” Ledecky said. “I couldn’t control if other people were using the hand sanitizer. I couldn’t control whether people were grabbing the dinner rolls with their hands and infecting things. So there’s only a certain amount you can control and you do your best.”
Ledecky, who won individual gold medals from 200 to 800 meters at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, also did her best in the pool, even though she wasn’t feeling well as soon as the team arrived at worlds for the eight-day competition.
Something seemed amiss when Ledecky didn’t have her usual verve in the 400-meter freestyle, one of three Olympic events in which she holds the world record, losing to Ariarne Titmus of Australia by more than a second.
Even though the loss was Ledecky’s first in a distance freestyle event in an international meet, she did not make excuses. She didn’t mention being sick.
“I didn’t want to take away from the great race that Ariarne had,” Ledecky said. “It was a really great race. Honestly, I didn’t fully know what I had at that point. I knew something wasn’t right. I had lost a couple of pounds. My appetite wasn’t there for a couple of days leading into the meet.”
The bug really hit her the morning of the 1,500 prelims.
“I’m not lying when I say that I almost got out at the 1,100 mark,” Ledecky said. “I’ve had a lot of 1,500s that have hurt and I’ve put myself through a lot in some of those races but never have I gotten to the point where I felt like I was going have to get out.”
Even though she had slowed to well over a minute on that split, she powered through the final 400 meters for the fastest qualifying time, got out of the pool and asked for a doctor.
Her symptoms were nausea, a headache, irregular pulse, elevated heart rate and sleeplessness.
Ledecky withdrew from the 200 free preliminaries and the 1,500 free final. She was the three-time defending champ in the 1,500.
After the hospital visit, she eventually felt well enough to swim a leg on the 4x200 freestyle, which took silver.
Then Ledecky decided she had worked up enough strength to give the 800 free a go. Ledecky led for seven laps, but Simona Quadarella pulled alongside her. Ledecky outsprinted the Italian swimmer with some of her finest racing.
“I didn’t really know how it was going to go until I got in it,” said Ledecky, who now figures she was at about 80-85 percent. “But it is a good feeling to finish on that kind of a note and not walk away from Korea with a really horrible feeling of how that meet went. It still kind of stings what happened, but again, you can’t control some of those things. And it’s nice to take a little bit of a positive and a gold medal back home.”
She’s making the rounds at her home pool at nationals, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, catching up with friends and cheering on teammates. Ledecky said she is impressed with the 16- and 17-year-olds who have been making finals and even winning titles.
“It’s really cool to see them step up and take advantage of that stage and that opportunity and I’m excited to see where they go from here,” she said.
Ledecky, who turned pro and is no longer swimming for Stanford University, now lives off-campus. She won’t take any more classes before the Tokyo Games, but is helping out with some research in the psychology department “to stay engaged and still get a couple of units along the way.”
The research project is right up her alley, revolving around exercise and diet mindsets, and although she has insights, she is not a subject.
While her summer wasn’t the gauge she wanted, she has confidence in her training and is looking forward to next year.
“I’m sure you’ll see me going faster than some of the times I was going at worlds at some of the pro series meets, just because hopefully I will be healthy,” Ledecky said.
A sickness like she had at worlds “happens to most people at some point over their career,” she added. “I guess I’m just glad that it was this year and not next year.”