Olympics: Swimming GOAT Katie Ledecky will stick around as she relishes rivalry with Ariarne Titmus

Ariarne Titmus (left) and Katie Ledecky after Titmus wins the 400m freestyle final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, on July 26, 2021.
Ariarne Titmus (left) and Katie Ledecky after Titmus wins the 400m freestyle final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, on July 26, 2021.PHOTO: ST FILE

TOKYO - With 22 top-level gold medals, seven at the Olympics and 15 at the World Championships, Katie Ledecky is the most decorated female swimmer of all time.

Maybe that is why it is easy to forget she is still only 24.

After completing her Tokyo 2020 programme on Saturday (July 31) with a straightforward win in the 800m freestyle, the American's answers at a press conference were as smooth as the strokes that helped her also bag gold in the inaugural 1,500m freestyle and silver in the 400m free and 4x200m free relay.

She fielded questions on retirement, if she could break another world record, and whether she would switch to open water swimming.

Quit? No way.

The long-distance specialist told The Straits Times: "I want to go to Paris (2024), I want to keep representing my country at this level... and it would be an honour to go to a fifth Games and compete on home soil (at Los Angeles 2028). I know how unique that is, and how special that is if I can do it."

After rewriting the 1,500m world record six times from 2013 to 2018, there have been no best times since.

Can she go faster? Yes, but it is no longer a priority.

Ledecky said: "It's still at the back of my head that I can get there. But I also knew that I wasn't going to beat myself up if I didn't go those times again. And that was the big realisation for me. You don't have to hit this time, but if you win gold, be happy about it, don't beat yourself up about it."

Swim the 10km marathon? Breaststroke, maybe.

"That's just a joke, nobody write that headline," she pleaded as the room with about 20 journalists at the Main Press Centre filled with laughter.

"Yeah, I don't think open water is for me... I don't think I'll be adding other events."

But for now, it is back to the United States where she will get some much-deserved rest; the longest break from the pool she has taken in the last five years was 21/ 2 weeks after Rio 2016.

Her wishlist: Play water basketball and ping pong with her brother, visiting museums, catch a Brooklyn Nets game, and simply sleeping on her own bed.

Then she checked herself and said: "Maybe a couple of laps, it's hard to keep me out. I sleep better when I swim, I feel better when I swim. It's such a huge part of my life and so I get very eager to get back into training because I love training."

Perhaps at the back of her mind is the quest to overtake compatriot Jenny Thompson - eight golds (all from relays), three silvers, one bronze - as the most bemedalled female Olympic swimmer, as well as the refusal to relinquish her grip with a fierce rival on the rise.

At Tokyo 2020, 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus edged out Ledecky in the 400m free and also set an Olympic record in the 200m free in which the American was fifth. Titmus also won silver in the 800m free and bronze in the 4x200m freestyle relay.

Admitting to following her opponent's times and treating it like a "virtual race", Ledecky called their titanic battles an "awesome" and "friendly" rivalry.

Ariarne Titmus (left) and Katie Ledecky at the 400m freestyle final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo, on July 26, 2021. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

She added: "We really pushed each other this week in our events, we pushed each other the past five years. Both when we race and when we train, we keep each other in mind.

"It's fun when you finally get together in a meet like this and get in lanes next to each other and get to put up your best swims against each other. I think we both really respect what we've each accomplished both this week and throughout our swimming careers.

"I know she's got a bright future, and is going to continue to push me and hopefully I can do the same for her."