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Deferred Dreams: Katie Ledecky, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland On Tokyo 2021

March was a stressful month for Katie Ledecky.

The five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer had just posted her best time since 2018 in the 800 meter freestyle at Olympic trials in Des Moines when Stanford University, her alma mater and training ground, announced that it was shutting down its facilities in response to the coronavirus.

Without Stanford's aquatic facilities, Ledecky scrambled to find somewhere to practice, eventually landing in a Palo Alto family’s two-lane backyard pool alongside her Olympic teammate Simone Manuel. And three weeks later, after a lengthy internal debate, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would be postponing the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo until next year. 

Five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Katie Ledecky in 2017

“I’ve been trying to shift my mindset to this next year,” Ledecky told Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on Wednesday’s Walker Webcast.

“I’ve been training more on my own and lifting in my apartment. It’s tough to spend years preparing for this and have to adjust, but my goals haven’t changed," she said. "I’m still trying to achieve those goals. And if the games can’t happen next year either, I’ll shift my mindset again and find another way to shift my goals.”

Many of Ledecky’s peers on Team USA have made the same mental and physical adjustments, resetting their training schedules for a 2021 Olympics and trying to find places to hone their skills in a way that complies with social distancing. But for other athletes, the delay in the 2020 games meant ending their Olympic dreams. 

“For some athletes, that was the end,” said Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

“They made a decision that another year [was] not in the cards. For some it was because they wanted to move on with their life, have a family or because they were planning to go back to school post-Tokyo," Hirshland said. "For others, it was just saying, ‘My body and mind don’t want to do this for another year.’ There are big sacrifices in training for the Olympics.”

Now, the USOPC is in charge of supporting a network of hundreds of athletes across the country many of whom have nowhere to practice and, often, no way to pay for rent or food. Sponsorship deals are only common in the highest-profile sports, and with competitions canceled and speaking arrangements impossible, the prize money and income that many Olympians rely on has all dried up.

Hirshland’s organization is now in its own dire financial straits. The USOPC is one of the only Olympic Committees in the world that is not subsidized by its country’s government and laid off 18% of its staff in May. It operates in four-year cycles, taking in almost all of its revenue during the Summer Olympic Games. Hirshland was projecting a $75M surplus after the Tokyo Games. Now she’s projecting a $75M loss for 2020.

U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland on the Walker Webcast

Most of the difference should be made up by having the event next year, Hirshland said, but in the meantime, the USOPC is relying on donations from people around the country to provide services to its athletes.

"Many of our Olympic and Paralympic athletes are struggling to make ends meet right now," Hirshland said. "We try to supplement their lifestyles by providing cash stipends, lodging, food, meals, coaching, resources, science and all tools that we can bring to bear to help them in elite competition."

How the Tokyo Games will come together in 2021 is still up in the air. While U.S. sports leagues like the NBA and NHL may have made their seasons work in a bubble, the same approach won’t be feasible for the Olympics. There are fewer than 500 active NBA players, while the Olympics draw together 10,000 athletes from around the world.

“The optimist in me says we’re going to Tokyo, but it’s not clear who is going,” Hirshland said. “I know Katie and her peers are going. But those of us who are fans, nonessential staff or bystanders, we have to make sure all our athletes can compete and stay safe.”

More than 40 facilities that were purpose-built for the games are standing idle, Hirshland said. Japanese households had already leased or bought up the thousands of apartments set aside for the Olympic Village, with the promise that they would be renovated directly after the games. Now those families are being told they have to wait another year for their new houses.

And while it’s fairly simple to stay socially distant during a swim meet or a cycling race, it’s unclear how wrestlers or even basketball players will be able to compete safely.

For now, the athletes that have made a commitment to the 2021 Games have to keep practicing as best they can. Ledecky, for her part, is back at Stanford, swimming between 6,000 and 9,000 meters per day in the pool in between taking remote classes. She admits that just like many homebound Americans, the monotony of quarantine is taking a mental toll, but hoped that we all could find small ways to vary our routines and keep our goals in mind.

“I’ve had time to reach out to old friends, some people I haven’t talked to since high school, to connect and catch up,” Ledecky said. “I’m trying to connect with as many people as I can, stay in good touch with my family and keep each other upbeat.”

Next Wednesday, Willy will host Starwood Capital CEO Barry Sternlicht. Register here for the event.

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Walker & Dunlop. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.