INDIANAPOLIS – For Olympic athletes, the five-ring hangover is real.
The aftereffects of four years spent pouring heart and soul into earning an Olympic berth can be crippling. The transition can be tough: finding new purpose, relocating reality and returning to a modest corner of the athletic universe after a sudden and intense star turn.
Unless you’re Katie Ledecky, who is so solidly grounded that life after one of the greatest Olympic performances in the history of women’s swimming is pretty normal. At least, if your version of normal includes smashing more records and excelling academically at one of America’s elite academic institutions.
Ledecky followed up her four-gold-medal tour de force in Rio de Janeiro by doing what Olympic heroes do: making talk-show appearances, posing for a lot of pictures and throwing the opening pitch at a game for her hometown Washington Nationals. That produced a great scene: Nationals star Bryce Harper holding Ledecky’s medals on his arms like a butler while she threw an off-speed pitch for a strike on the outside corner.
But other than that, she did her best to carry on as if nothing had changed – even though everything had changed. She switched coasts, switched coaches, left home … and just basically carried on as if she hadn’t morphed into an American athletic hero.
For Ledecky, it helps that fame is a byproduct, not a goal. It comes with the territory but doesn’t dominate the landscape.
“It’s definitely been a little bit of a transition,” she said Monday. “But there aren’t really any surprises.”
With Katie Ledecky, the only surprise is her continuing ability to expand her own greatness. At age 20 and heading into what should be another summer of jaw-dropping victory margins, she continues to get better.
Ledecky is in Indy this week for the U.S. National Championships and World Championship Trials. She is entered in every freestyle event from 100 through 1500 meters – a testament to her versatility, adding sprints to her unparalleled endurance ability. If she makes the American team in all five of those freestyle events and adds a relay, she could be chasing six medals at the FINA World Championships in Budapest next month.
It would be the next step in her worldwide domination tour, with Tokyo 2020 looming in the distance. But her life in the last year has been a major transition.
Moving away from Washington, D.C., the greatest freestyler in history relocated to the Bay Area, climbed on a bike, strapped on a school-issued helmet and pedaled between classes on Stanford’s picturesque campus. She entered dorm life with three roommates who were not scholarship athletes (that’s part of the deal at Stanford, where athletes are not sequestered from the rest of the student body).
She took an array of freshman classes while weighing whether to major in psychology, international relations, political science or history (no decision yet). She took pride in her academic performance this past school year, perhaps more than her domination in the pool, attacking her studies like a distance freestyle set in practice.
All the newness actually helped make the transition from Mount Olympus to morning classes easier. There was no choice but to assimilate.
“I don’t think anyone is immune to the post-Olympic letdown,” said Stanford coach Greg Meehan, who took the baton from Ledecky’s club coach, Bruce Gemmell. “But what helped Katie was that she had all of August to wind down and then when she came to campus, there was so much to look forward to, so much excitement. She was entering a new academic climate, social life and a college team that had a lot of big goals ahead of them.”
Ledecky helped Meehan and the Cardinal capture their first NCAA championship since 1998, restoring a dormant dynasty. She set the American record in the 500 free, was part of two American-record-setting relays, won the mile by a figurative mile (but didn’t break her own record set a few months earlier), and tied for first in the 200 free. No hangover in that performance.
“I enjoyed being with great teammates,” Ledecky said. “I enjoyed the team culture and having fun through the NCAA season.”
Along the way, Stanford did its part to normalize the college experience for its newest international athletic sensation. Of course, it helps to fit into the rank and file when the campus is crawling with highly accomplished students from all walks of life and all parts of the globe.
“Everyone at Stanford is really special in whatever they’re passionate about,” Ledecky said.
If you win a fistful of Olympic gold medals, you’re noticed and celebrated more than the other special Stanford students. Ledecky has dealt with all that and kept moving at her own unaffected pace, seeking normalcy, leaving the five-ring hangover behind.
And with the Rio hero-building exercise dealt with and dismissed, we might see the best Katie Ledecky yet in the years to come.