Katie Ledecky Says Standing on the Podium After Winning an Olympic Medal Is a 'Moment of Reflection'

"It's an incredible feeling," decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky tells PEOPLE

Katie Ledecky
Katie Ledecky after winning a gold medal in 2016. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Katie Ledecky has won and won and won — and won — in her near-decade as an Olympic swimmer, transforming from a 15-year-old swimming phenomenon to a leading member of Team USA, with five gold medals and a silver to her name.

And each time she's up on the podium holding a medal, she says, is a chance to soak in her years of work and how it has paid off.

"It's an incredible feeling," Ledecky, now 24, told PEOPLE ahead of traveling to Tokyo for the Summer Games.

"In London and Rio, I had my family there and it's just a great feeling to see them and share that moment with them while I was on the podium and hear the national anthem," she said of her two previous Olympic appearances. "It's such an honor to represent your country and to do it at the highest level and to reach the podium. And it's kind of a moment of reflection, I think — kind of like a little meditation."

katie ledecky
Katie Ledecky. Sean M Haffey/Getty

"You just kind of think back to all the people that helped you get to that point," Ledecky continued. "And of course after that moment, you get the chance to really thank them and celebrate with them. But [you] just kind of think back to when you first started swimming and all the years it took to get to that point."

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The year since the Games were delayed by COVID-19 has been so strange for her, as for so many other athletes, trying to figure out their sport in the shadow of a more important public health crisis.

But Ledecky found her rhythm — and was grateful to be able to train in the backyard swimming pool of Tod Spieker, a former NCAA swimming great.

"I was just enjoying things and stress-free and just trying to do what I could do and control what I could control," Ledecky said. "I think that's the biggest thing we've all learned as athletes: that you can only control so much and that you have to be adaptable and grateful. I mean, I've been very grateful to just have something to continue to do, something that I love to be able to continue to do ... Having that has been such a great constant in my life and definitely over the past year."

(On top of that, she also graduated from Stanford University, completing her final semesters remotely.)

When she returns to the Olympic pool in Japan, Ledecky won't be as surrounded by familiar faces: COVID precautions mean family and friends could not travel.

"It's tough," she admitted. "I'm definitely going to miss them, but I totally understand the decision and I'm just excited that the Olympics are moving forward and then we'll have that opportunity."

And her loved ones are never further away than her phone.

Katie Ledecky
Katie Ledecky. Kevork Djansezian/Getty
katie ledecky
Katie Ledecky. TYR Sport, Inc

"I know that they're watching back home and they're still cheering me on," she said. "So I still connect with them regularly when I'm at meets, whether they're there or not, texting them and letting them know how I'm doing. And my family is always checking in on me."

As for the competition itself — Ledecky sounds similar to her teenage self back in 2012, smiling in the glow of a victory: "I didn't really expect gold, but I'll take it," she said then.

Now, she shared, "It's really important to just take one race at a time, and from prelims, semi-finals to finals, just making any adjustments you can make and trying to be faster along the way.

"That's definitely always the goal: just trying to find ways to be faster."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23 and the Tokyo Paralympics beginning Aug. 24 on NBC.

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