Katie Ledecky has dominated the pool on the world’s biggest stage for over a decade. But as she writes in her new book Just Add Water, that was never her plan. Olympians were superheroes, she believed. Ledecky, meanwhile, was just a girl who loved water and aimed, in her first 25-yard freestyle race, to make it across the pool without stopping.

But it didn’t take long to realize she had a hell of a lot more in her. Not long after she joined the Palisades Porpoises at age six—her first swim team in Montgomery County, Maryland—her talent became evident. Her parents were encouraging, but not pushy; her coaches challenged her athletically and also valued her as a person. Eventually, all that powered her not just to the end of the pool, but to the top of Olympic and world championship podiums. She’s won seven Olympic gold medals and 21 World Championship titles, making her an undisputed great not just in swimming, but in all of sports.

In chronicling her journey, her memoir includes both mind-blowing details about her training—she loves threshold sets where she’s swimming 45 to 60 minutes at a heart rate of 180—and touching tributes to her parents, brother, and grandparents. Filled with entertaining tales about behind-the-scenes training camps and thrilling competitions, it’s pretty much the perfect read to prep for the Paris Games this summer, where Ledecky once again hopes to compete for Team USA.

SELF caught up with Ledecky before it hit bookshelves to hear more about her writing habit, passion for swimming history, perspective on women’s sports, health challenges, and goals for Paris—and beyond (hint: she’s not hanging up her goggles anytime soon). Here’s what she had to say.

You’re a longtime journaler. How did you get started, and how has writing about your emotions and experiences benefited you as an athlete and a person?

It started when I was 14 years old, almost 15, in that first Olympic year for me. [My coach] Yuri [Suguiyama] was frustrated that I wasn’t communicating as much as he would have liked. So he handed me this composition notebook, like what you would have in school, and told me exactly what to put in it: My main set of practice; give myself a wellness score, nutrition score, a sleep score, on a scale of one to 10; and then write anything else I wanted to. At first, I wrote the bare minimum, then I took a hiatus for a couple of years.

I started back up leading into the next Olympics, around 2015, and I’ve been journaling every year since. The format is pretty much still the same—I swim every day, so I write out my practices, how much yardage we did, some of my times. But what has evolved is what I’ve added to it. This isn’t something that I share with my coach anymore; it’s for me. So I write down what I’m thinking during practice, how I’m feeling, if I’m tired, if I’m feeling really good, I’m feeling confident, if I’m having doubts. I’m able to just put it all on paper.

I look back on my old journals and I learn from them. I’m reminded of how I felt at different points in the season, or I take some of the lessons from the past and apply them to now. I probably have, like, 15 notebooks now. It was fun during this book-writing process to look back at them all. The COVID journals were the most interesting and detailed. I think I consciously recognized this was going to be something I’d want to look back on, so I wrote more than ever about doing dry land [workouts] in my apartment, swimming in a backyard pool, and what I was feeling.

The chapter we’re excerpting here is the London chapter—that huge, first gold medal for you. When you think back on it now, what’s the biggest feeling or moment that sticks in your mind?

There are so many parts of it that I remember so clearly and then other parts that it just felt like I was walking in this wild, surreal dream. I wouldn’t even call it a dream because as I write, this was never a dream of mine—I never thought I would make it to that level.

As I described in that chapter, when I flipped at the 600-meter mark of that race, it was like waking up. Everything became so vivid to me. I was taking in every single detail of the signage along the side of the pool, what I was seeing, what I was hearing, what it felt like when I touched the wall, seeing my family for the first time after the race.

I just had such a great time in London. I only had that one race, the prelim and then the final. The days leading up to that, I went to opening ceremonies and got to watch all my teammates compete. That inspired me and made me feel prepared. I was just a 15-year-old and had no reason to feel super confident in that environment. But everyone around me—my coaches, my teammates—made me feel like I belonged. It was such a great feeling.

You wrote that invisibility was your superpower at the time—you and probably your teammates and coaches had an inkling of what might be possible, but no one else really knew. Obviously, as your career has developed, you’ve become much more visible. What other superpowers have you developed as you continued your upward trajectory?

I had that invisibility and that fresh perspective in London, but now I’ve gained that other perspective of experience. I know what it’s like walking into an Olympic Village, I know what it’s like in the ready room at an international competition and what the crowd is going to be like. I can process it and prepare for it in a way I couldn’t when I was 15. It’s kind of two sides of a coin; both are valuable if you use them in the right way.

You make a surprising revelation about your health in the book: You have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome or POTS, a condition that affects your heart rate and blood flow, especially when you go from lying or sitting to standing. You describe how your symptoms, including dizziness and fatigue and inconsistent training sessions, began in the leadup to Rio, and how your coach encouraged you to see the specialist at Johns Hopkins who diagnosed you. What made you decide it was time to talk about that publicly now? And how does it feel to start doing that?

It feels good. It’s not like I was ever hiding it; it just never felt like it was something I needed to share. I’ve had it under control completely. I really just had to add salt to my diet and wear compression gear. Whenever I get sick and when I go to hot environments, I need to be especially careful to stay on top of my salt and hydration.

I thought it was important to tell my whole story, and that was a part of my story, especially leading up to the 2016 Olympics. It was a new thing that I had to acknowledge and be aware of, something that was always in the back of my mind. I wanted to share how that’s impacted me at different points and how I’ve been able to push through that and take control of that part and live a healthy lifestyle.

POTS has become increasingly common after COVID—and interestingly, as you point out in the book, exercise in general and swimming in particular are also helpful in managing it. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for people who might be dealing with POTS and don’t yet have it under control?

The biggest thing is to trust the health professionals you’re working with. I did that and was able to figure out what helped me pretty quickly. I understand that for some people, it’s a longer process. But it’s important to stay patient and work with the people around you and make sure you have good people watching out for you, encouraging you. For instance, my mom is always reminding me to stay on my salt and hydration.

Another thing you write about, and frequently talk about, is swimming history—how aware and grateful you are for the opportunity to pursue your sport at the highest level when many women who came before you couldn’t. When do you think you first became aware of this history in your place in it, and how does that motivate you?

From a very young age, I had great role models in my local area. Some of the best female distance swimmers when I was starting to swim were from the DC, Maryland, Virginia area. I enjoyed watching them and learning the history of our sport.

Once I started competing in the distance races, I learned about distance swimmers like Janet Evans and Debbie Meyer. As I got older, I got to meet people like them through swim clinics, Olympic events, and USA Swimming events. I’ve formed special relationships with many of them.

It’s important to remind people that we’ve come a long way in women’s sports, and the opportunities that we have today are special because not everyone had them. It’s meaningful for those athletes to hear that—and for them to feel this strong connection with current swimmers. They’re always cheering us on and that means a lot to us as well.

In your chapter titled “Swim like a Girl,” you discuss some of the things that remain challenging for female athletes. You did an incredible ad for chocolate milk where you swam across the pool balancing a glass on your head, and you make this analogy in the book that being a female athlete is kind of like that—much harder than it looks when you successfully pull it off. Can you talk some about the inequities female athletes still face?

There are still some things that need balancing in the coverage of women’s sports and how female athletes are perceived—the fact that it’s not always just about the accomplishments, but that you have to do something or be something more than just great to get attention or praise or notoriety.

It’s not that I’m after that, but I think a lot of women in sports deserve attention for the great things they are doing on the court, on the field, in the pool, wherever it is—yet [unlike for male athletes] sometimes it takes a little more to capture people’s attention.

Right now—I don’t want to say that women’s sports is having a moment because that makes it sound like it’s a brief blip, but it feels like there’s a movement. As one of the highest-profile female athletes of the past decade, have you seen progress in the way women swimmers or athletes generally are perceived, respected, and supported?

I think the biggest thing I saw was the addition of the 1500-meter free in the Olympics in Tokyo. We have that now for the future. That was a big, big change and a long time coming, and special to be a part of.

As a whole, women’s sports—as you said, it’s not just a moment. It’s something that started many years ago, and we’re all trying to continue the momentum. People are enjoying watching women’s sports, and I hope that this summer they’ll enjoy watching Team USA women crush it at the Olympics.

Yes, and you won the first-ever gold in that 1500 freestyle—not that your name wasn’t already in the history books, but that will always be yours! Speaking of this summer—you write in the book that you typically don’t reveal your goals or “want times.” But even broadly speaking, what would make the Paris Games a success for you?

Well, first off, I have to qualify. Our Trials are in mid-June. Of course, I would love to qualify in multiple events for Paris and bring home some medals. That’s always the goal if you’re on Team USA.

I have specific time-oriented goals in mind that I’m not going to share. But I know those goals will push me to compete with the very best in the world and put me in a position to be up there. I’m happy with how my training has progressed over the last couple of years and I’m excited to see how the summer unfolds and what we can do as a team.

And what comes after that? You share some in the book about how long you intend to continue competing. How are you thinking about that, and even what might come after that, right now?

I’m pretty focused on the present right now, but I know that I’m not done competing after the summer. I would love to compete in Los Angeles in 2028. I know that that is several years away at this point, so I’ll take it year by year. But right now, I think 2028 is in the cards and something that I would love to participate in, whether it’s in one event or multiple events. I think more training is in my future and more competing—just a lot more swimming.

Thinking back again to London—if you could go back and talk to 15-year-old Katie about all that what’s to come, what would you say to her?

Well, you know, I’m pretty happy with how things have turned out. I was able to reset some goals after London pretty quickly. I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder; I wanted to continue representing Team USA.

So there’s nothing really to warn her about. I think I would just go back to London and remind 15-year-old Katie she belongs, she’s capable of more, and to keep that smile on her face. I loved swimming back then and I love it even more today—it seems like every year I love it a little bit more.