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TOKYO – In February 2020, the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics unveiled the motto for the Summer Games: “United by Excitement.” They had no idea how prophetic it would turn out. We are flooded with strong feelings that run deeper than the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
In a span of a few hours, Olympic fans went through a trail of tears with two of the biggest names here, Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky. His emotions, and his emotional state, have never been so evident. The tensions, the ups and downs – all are out in the open for the world to absorb and evaluate.
We have never been deeper into the hearts and minds of the great Olympians. And while part of him almost feels intrusive, it shouldn’t. They took us there.
On Tuesday night Tokyo time, Biles recognized, abruptly, sharply and shockingly, as he left the competition for gymnastics teams, the burden he carries at the height of his own greatness. On Wednesday morning, Ledecky pretty much did the same.
The best swimmer of all time cried in the pool. He cried in the mixed zone. Drowned in her press conference. He is more easily moved to tears than public perception can allow; she cried at the end of her epic performance at Rio 2016 and shed a few tears at the Olympic trials last month, but this was still extraordinary. It was a stark glimpse of a growing and evolving young woman as she processed the most difficult of her three Olympic competitions.
For the first time as an Olympian, she was brutally beaten on Wednesday morning. She finished fifth in the 200m freestyle, an event she won in 2016. She was not expected to win this time, but a silver medal certainly seemed within reach. Losing the podium by 1.71 seconds in the shortest of his four individual races was a shock; when it was combined with a silver medal in the 400m freestyle on Monday, it was downright disorienting.
But then Ledecky regrouped and won the 1,500-meter freestyle, with American teammate Erica Sullivan charging hard for silver. Ledecky’s time was not extraordinary by his standards, which in that case are not the same as the rest of humanity. But recovery and a return to dominance mattered more than time. And the reaction was unlike any of his five previous gold medals.
Ledecky waited for his teammate Sullivan to finish, then hit the water with his hand to celebrate them both. They hugged, and suddenly Ledecky started crying.
That moment was a hint of what she and Biles probably know better than two athletes here: how difficult it can be to carry perfection on your shoulders every day. “I would never want to speak for Simone and say I know what she’s feeling, because none of us do,” Ledecky said. “But I understand it”.
An existence in which any weakness is a shock and excellence is the minimum requirement is not easy. Especially as evidence grows that the performance in Rio, when it won everything and broke records, was a peak that will probably not be climbed again.
“I always strive to be better than ever, and it’s not easy when your times are world records,” said Ledecky, during what was without a doubt his most sloppy press conference at the Olympics. “I am very hard on myself. But that’s the attitude I have: I literally approach every race with the belief that I can swim in the best time, and that is quite difficult. But that’s why I’ve been so successful over the years, because I approach every race with the attitude that anything can happen and I can break world records in this race. I’m going to step up and take myself down.
“It is a true blessing and a curse to have that attitude. It has served me well and that is why I have broken so many world records and swim so many times. It is also a very difficult attitude to maintain for nine years ”.
Ledecky has learned to live with that duality, that conflict created by himself. She really wants to win each time, but she can also deal with a silver medal when she swims her second best time in the 400m freestyle.
What she would like now is for the outside world to join her in that coexistence. Celebrate victories, but don’t treat losses as some kind of calamity.
“I’m kind of at peace with that,” he said. “I laugh a little when I see things like ‘settle for money.’ There are so many Olympians who have won silver and bronze that they are very happy about it and deserve a lot of praise. Just because I’ve won gold all the time doesn’t mean that silver doesn’t mean something to me.
“I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, or think that a silver medal is a disappointment or anything like that. I’d rather have people care about people who are really struggling in life. It is a great privilege to be in an Olympic Games, let alone an Olympic Games in the middle of a pandemic. I’m lucky to be here. “
As she has often done, Ledecky leaned on the family psychologically after the shock of her fifth place in the 200s. Her coach, Greg Meehan, gave her a few minutes to process it before sending her into the warm-up pool to get ready. for the 1,500. As he slowly turned the laps, Ledecky thought of his grandparents: his deceased grandparents, his living but elderly grandmothers, whom he very much wanted to visit after the Olympics for the first time since before the pandemic.
“Four of the toughest people I know,” he said, using their struggles as a speed manual to recover.
Then she went out and did what she does better than any woman in history: spinning lap after lap after lap and leaving everyone behind. When he stood on the top podium, he remembered everything that had accompanied him having been there before.
“I was thinking about the power of the gold medal and what I have experienced over the years, how I have gone to children’s hospitals and encountered wounded warriors and their faces light up when they see the gold medal. That means more to me than anything else, the ability to put a smile on someone’s face. I still wanted to get a gold medal to have that opportunity again ”.
Her voice cracked at that moment, and for the third time this day she had tears in her eyes. Katie Ledecky didn’t try to hide that from anyone, just like Simone Biles didn’t protect us from her moment of doubt at the gym the night before. We have never seen our Olympic heroes like this before, with deep emotions, but also there to see and hopefully to understand.
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• The rich history of fencing with the creepy, but worthy! – Duel art
• Biles, Osaka, sign of a new era of mental health prioritization
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.