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Katie Ledecky tells NPR about her plans for the Paris Olympics — and LA in 2028

Katie Ledecky reacts after setting a world record and winning the Woman's 1500m Final at the FINA Swimming World Cup in 2022.
Gregory Shamus
Getty Images
Katie Ledecky reacts after setting a world record and winning the Woman's 1500m Final at the FINA Swimming World Cup in 2022.

Katie Ledecky is used to getting medals.

She has 10 Olympic medals — seven of which are gold — and she has 26 world championship medals — 21 of those are gold.

All of that hardware has helped her earn the undisputed title as the greatest female swimmer of all time.

But on Friday, she will receive a different kind of medal: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can get from the U.S. government.

Ledecky spoke to All Things Considered host Juana Summers about what the medal means to her, how she is thinking about the Paris Olympics in July-August, and why she has no plans to retire after this summer.

Juana Summers will be in Paris covering the Olympics for NPR. You can follow all her reporting on All Things Considered.

Ledecky with two gold and two silver medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Getty Images
Ledecky with two gold and two silver medals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Juana Summers: Alright Katie, so this medal — does this one go in the same trophy cases as your Olympic medals? What do you think you're going to do with it?

Katie Ledecky: Oh, I have not even thought of that yet! This is definitely one that's very meaningful and very unique. And never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I would be receiving this recognition. So I'm very, very honored.

Summers: Let's look ahead if we can, because this could be another incredibly big year for you. The Summer Olympics start in just a few months in Paris — how are you feeling in the pool these days? Do you feel like you're ready?

Ledecky: I'm ready. We have our Olympic trials in about a month now. So that's what I'm gearing up for, I have one more meet before then. So everything is tracking well, my training is going well. And I'm really excited for hopefully the opportunity to represent the U.S. at a fourth Olympics. I can't believe that I get this opportunity and it's gonna be a great summer and I'm excited.

Summers: If the trials go your way, and you do indeed get to represent the U.S. at your fourth Olympic Games, do you know which event you will be most excited for?

Ledecky: Oh, well, I hope I'll be competing in multiple events. And each one is special in a different way. The 800 free has always been my favorite and the event that I swam at my first Olympics in 2012, which I won gold at at age 15. So that's one that I hold a special place for in my heart. But I love all my events. And I'm looking forward to each of the challenges that I'll have with each of the races.

Summers: If you head to Paris, do you think they will be your last? Do you think we'll see you come back for the 2028 games in Los Angeles?

Ledecky: I take things year by year, but right now, I definitely could see myself competing in 2028, with it being a home Olympics. It's something that's very unique. It's something that not every Olympic athlete gets. And so I definitely know I'm not retiring after this summer and 2028 is very appealing. So I think, at this point, I want to be there, I want to compete in at least one event, maybe more. But again, plans can change. It's a long ways away, my focus is solely on this summer in Paris at this moment.

Ledecky in the Women's 800m Freestyle Final in Tokyo in 2021.
Tom Pennington / Getty Images
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Ledecky in the Women's 800m Freestyle Final in Tokyo in 2021.

Summers: You know, I have to say you have been such an inspiration for so many young women athletes, whether they are swimmers or competitors in other sports, just due to your dominance, the number of medals you've amassed, your longevity in your sport, and now receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is one of the highest awards a civilian can get in the United States. How do you think about your career, what you represent, what you show to a new generation of athletes, particularly women athletes?

Ledecky: Oh, thank you for the kind words. I tried to give as much as I can. And I hope that young girls look up to me and can see the work that I've put in and the results that I've had and what I've tried to accomplish in and out of the pool. I hope they see that and are inspired by it, whether they're a swimmer or not.

I think, you know, I've learned a lot through the sport. And through this over a decade-long journey I've had at the international level, I've learned a lot about goal setting and dedication and resilience.

Summers: Is there a lesson or a story about resilience you would share for the folks who look to you as a role model?

Ledecky: Sure, I think one story that I think a lot of Olympic athletes would tell you is about our experience in 2020 and 2021 and the Olympics being postponed a year. In swimming, the Olympics is the pinnacle of our sport and we build four-year plans to peak at the Olympics and to be our very best. And so to have that pushed a year and to be kind of living under uncertain circumstances, and not knowing whether the Olympics would actually happen, I think took a lot of resilience for all of us, and we all had to adapt and train in backyard pools and do weightlifting in our homes or apartments and all those things.

So I learned a lot about myself during that time, learned that you can adapt and you can adjust to change. And certainly, we weren't going through the worst of it during that time — I felt very lucky and fortunate to have a goal and something to work towards with the Olympics. I know that so many people during that time were suffering a lot more than we were. I think having those experiences have made me tougher, and really taught me that I'm able to adapt when things don't go the way that I anticipate they'll go.

Summers: Katie, whether Paris is your last Olympics, or you go to L.A., or even beyond, eventually, you will stop swimming competitively. What do you think about when you think about that future? Is that something you don't even consider right now?

Ledecky: I haven't thought about it too much. But for me, when I think of swimming, and I think of this career that I've had, I think of all the joy that I've had in the sport, and everything that I've been able to learn through the sport, all the people that I've gotten to meet through the sport, all the places that I've gotten to go through competitive swimming. And I think because of all that joy that I've experienced in the sport, it's something that I'm never going to stop doing.

Of course, some day my competitive career will come to an end and I'm not going to be looking at the clock or having a coach get my times every every set. But I think I'll always find myself going back to the pool and swimming some laps or splashing around. And it's a place that I find so much joy.

As we get into the summer months, I hope that a lot of other people can find that joy and learn how to swim. It's such an important life skill. And, in my view, the greatest sport on earth, and something that you can do for the rest of your life. I hope that I'll be swimming into my 90s — I have a 98-year-old grandma, so I'm lucky to have some good genes there, and I hope that I'll be able to stay healthy and happy, and happy in the pool and happy in the water. It's definitely my happy place.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.