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Katie Ledecky on her Tokyo wins, mental health and gender equality in sports

A seven-time Olympic gold medalist and record-breaking swimmer, 24-year-old Katie Ledecky is one of the most decorated Olympic athletes from the Tokyo games. She won the first-ever women’s 1500-meter freestyle, won gold in the 800-meter, and two more silver medals in this year's games, bringing her career total to 10. Ledecky joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her wins and what led to them.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Seven-time Olympic gold medalist and record-breaking swimmer 24-year-old Katie Ledecky is one of the most decorated Olympic athletes from the Tokyo Games. She won the first ever women's 1, 500-meter freestyle in Tokyo. And she won gold in the 800 meter, and two more silver medals in the Games, bringing her career total to ten.

    Katie Ledecky is here with me in our studio.

    And welcome. And congratulations.

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're wearing four of those medals from Tokyo.

    You're — are you still on cloud nine?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    I am. I am. It is great to be back in the U.S. and to be with family and friends, and to just share all of the memories with them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And they look heavy. So, right off the bat, tell us, how heavy are they?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    They are. Well, you felt it earlier. It is always shocking to people how heavy they are. So, it is fun to bring them around to schools or just anywhere and have somebody feel, feel how heavy they are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So exciting, what you did in Tokyo.

    And yet we were all conscious there was nobody there as a spectator. You were there with your coach and teammates. Did that affect what were you able to do, do you think?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Well, I think I was actually sort of surprised at how normal it did feel.

    I had my teammates in the stands cheering when they didn't have races or when they were done competing. So they brought a lot of energy to our team. I think Team USA was the loudest at the pool. So, that was really nice to just be able to look in the stands and still see some familiar faces that are supporting you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking because you're used to hearing cheering, screaming fans out there from one end of the pool to the other.

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Yes, I mean, it was also tough not having family there. And I made sure to video call my family in between races as best I could.

    I just had those short moments, and there was the time difference, but we snuck it in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was looking at some of what was written about your winning the 1, 500-meter freestyle, first time that competition has been there for women at the Olympics, and thinking 15 minutes-plus of swimming your heart out.

    How hard is it?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Katie Ledecky:

    It's a challenging race.

    But it was so great that it was finally in the Olympics. There are so many women that didn't have that opportunity. And it's been a long time coming. So, for the U.S. to go one-two in that event for the first time it was there was incredible. It was the best we could do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I was also reading, Katie Ledecky, you said about what the — what's the secret sauce?

    I mean, how do you year after year, Olympic after Olympic, keep doing knowing what you're doing? And you came back with a very straightforward answer. And you said it's practice.

    And I think a lot of people would say, so, hard work, how inspirational can that be?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Yes, I mean, everyone's always trying to find out what the secret is.

    But there really isn't a secret. It's just a lot of hard work over many, many years, and not just from myself, but from my coaches, my teammates, my family, everyone that's helped me get to this point. It's not just the 15 minutes that I'm in that — in that race in the 1, 500. It's hours and hours every week for five years from Rio to now, but also the many years before that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As I know you know very well, there was a lot of attention at the Games to Simone Biles and what she said about opting out of some of the events in order to deal with her mental health.

    It's not something we often hear from the most successful athletes. How do you think about all that?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Yes, well, mental health is super important. And it goes hand in hand with physical health. And we have talked a lot about health as a whole over the past year-and-a-half.

    And I think it's important to continue to talk about. And athletes are humans too. We experience very similar things to everybody. And I don't think it's just an athletic problem.

    But you see everyone in society have different challenges. And everyone has to support each other to get to where you want to get if you have those — those big goals. And a lot of people do have big goals. And it takes a balanced approach to reach those goals and a lot of support. You have to rely on your support system.

    And it was great to see that Simone and many other athletes at the Games were able to do that successfully.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have been doing this now for a number of years. Do you think women athletes have it tougher than men? Or do you think it's pretty much evened out? What do you think?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    I don't know. I think — I think female athletes do have some challenges that men don't have, whether that's on the competition field or pool or court or outside of it.

    And, again, just going back to the 1, 500, it was so great to finally get that opportunity. And I feel like swimming is a really great sport, in that the men and the women compete on the same playing field. They usually alternate a men's event and a women's event. And we all train together and things like that.

    So I have been really grateful that, in our sport, it hasn't had that big of a disparity. But I know that many athletes and female athletes do feel the need to get out there. And there are some differences that need to be addressed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in connection with that, we're remembering Title IX…

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Yes. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … which of course, was the law that was passed in, what, 1972, 50, almost 50 years ago…

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … mandating that women should be — had to be treated equally…

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … with men in education, and particularly in sports.

    And you have talked about that. And you have said what a difference it made. But you have also said there's more work that needs to be done around that. What do you — what needs to be done, do you think?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    For sure, yes.

    I mean, as you said, my mom was one of the first beneficiaries of Title IX. She swam at the University of New Mexico and was able to get her — get a scholarship and compete and get a great education.

    And so, looking back on that, I don't know if I would have been a swimmer if my mom hadn't swum through college. And she didn't push me into the sport, by any means, but she helped teach me how to swim. And I grew to love the sport, probably because of some of that love of the sport that she had.

    So, I look at my career, and I don't know if it would have been possible without Title IX. And I'm really grateful for all the advances we have made over the past 50 years through Title IX. And there is a lot of work to continue to be done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when you look at the younger athletes coming along today, whether it's women in swimming or in other sports, do they have a clear field ahead of them, or are there still obstacles out there? What do you think?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    No, there are still obstacles out there.

    And you just look at companies. And I want to see more females in boardrooms and leading companies, especially athletic companies. And I think that's a big step that needs to be taken over the next several years. And I hope that I can lead in whatever way I can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of the future, you have — and you mentioned this — you're already looking ahead to the Olympics in 2024.

    You have just graduated from Stanford University. Congratulations.

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you said the other day, Katie Ledecky, that you had — you were thinking about what you wanted to do outside the pool.

    Tell us a little bit about that. What are you thinking?

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Well, I'm passionate about a lot of things outside of the pool.

    I have had the great opportunity to work with Panasonic on a STEM education program, where I have been able to visit schools and visit with students virtually as well over the past year, talking about the importance of education and setting goals, and trying to familiarize students around the country with science, technology, engineering, and math, skills that they will need in future careers.

    And I'm also considering going to grad school at some point, I don't know if that will be in the next three years between now and Paris, but I'm going to use the next couple months, next couple of years to really plot that out and figure out where I feel like I can be most impactful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I think you have got some time to figure it out.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Thanks.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Katie Ledecky, congratulations. I know everybody joins me in congratulating you. So proud of you. Thank you very much.

  • Katie Ledecky:

    Thank you.

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