Katie Ledecky poses for a portrait at the 2019 NBC / USOPC Promotional Shoot on Nov. 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
When people tell Katie Ledecky she’s their hero, the five-time Olympic champion in swimming is quick to redirect them.
That’s especially true right now, as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Ledecky said Saturday as part of the #WeKeepPlaying panel organized by the Women’s Sports Foundation and livestreamed via Yahoo Sports. The two-time Olympian instead pointed to the doctors and nurses and other workers at the front lines battling the disease that has already affected 1.7 million people worldwide and resulted in nearly 110,000 deaths.
“One thing I tell kids, look to other heroes in our society,” Ledecky said.
Ledecky was one of eight prominent sportswomen who took part in the hour-plus discussion organized by tennis legend and WSF founder Billie Jean King.
Joining them were U.S. Olympic gold medalists Carli Lloyd (soccer) and Kendall Coyne Schofield (ice hockey) and U.S. Paralympian Scout Bassett (track and field), as well as WNBA star Chiney Ogwumike, former University of Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu and San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Katie Sowers.
Also appearing was Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state and the first woman to be admitted into the Augusta National Golf Club. Journalist Cari Champion moderated the discussion.
The women discussed a variety of topics, though the COVID-19 pandemic was central to the talk, with social distancing affecting each of their lives and, for the athletes, their ability to train, though they made a point to highlight those on the front lines who are risking their lives. For King in particular, the medical crisis is hitting close to home.
“We’re in New York. We’re right in the epicenter here in this state,” she said. “The thing is, we love 7 o’clock at night. We go out and hit pots and pans to thank all the front-line workers and appreciate. Every human being is going through this together.”
Others echoed similar themes.
“You have to keep perspective for whom this is a much bigger crisis than for any of us,” Rice said. “Most of us are fortunate to be healthy and to have friends and family. So keeping that perspective is important.”
With social distancing and lockdowns in effect across much of the world, the sports world has come mostly to a halt in recent weeks, which for many athletes also means no formal training. Because she has an athletic facility she can go to, three-time Olympian Lloyd said she has been able to train, but when the U.S. women’s soccer team finished up a tournament with a game in Frisco, Texas, last month, the realities were already sinking in.
“This new norm became the norm,” she said. “Things started to get really real.”
King helped organize Saturday’s panel to celebrate achievement in sports by women, but also to keep things pointed toward the future.
For Ledecky and others, that means the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which are being postponed until 2021. The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming have a new date in 2021. But for now, Ledecky is back in school at Stanford. At least, online.
“It’s been really great to keep my mind active and really continue towards my degree, as well, and do something very productive during this time,” Ledecky said.
But the rescheduling of the Olympics, Paralympics and affiliated trials provided relief. A postponement is better than a cancellation.
“I’m happy to have something to start shooting for, but we still have a lot of meets that we want to have between now and then,” she said. “We want to resume normal training. It’s kind of hard right now to plan things out, but we’re doing the best that we can right now. You can only control what you can control.”
While social distancing is the norm, Rice said a routine is vital.
“I really do think we need to keep playing,” Rice said. “Even if we can’t be on the fields and the rinks, we can keep playing in important ways. I love playing sports. … I’m a golfer and I actually go out in my backyard and I chip and putt.”
Coyne Schofield and her husband, NFL player Michael Schofield, work out together in their home, she said. Ionescu stays busy with yoga, reading and finishing up her final classes at Oregon. Next week, she is expected to be the top pick in the WNBA Draft after seeing the COVID-19 pandemic wipe out the NCAA Tournament and her shot at a national title.
“Heartbreaking, to be completely honest,” she said. “Last time I’m putting on my jersey, last time I’m with my teammates. It was a bitter pill to swallow.”
Bassett, who lost her right leg in a chemical fire when she was an infant, has been mentoring young girls and that is where she finds inspiration.
“I have gone through a lot of really difficult hardships in my life, some unthinkable challenges and trauma,” she said. “For me, I’m very fueled by my faith and I have been able to overcome so much of that by the will to continue to push forward and to overcome to survive. Most importantly, to use my platform and these opportunities for good and for change.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.