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Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Jody Maxmin, a professor of art history at Stanford, remembers that Monday in late September 2016 when the tall but familiar-looking girl with wet hair walked into her classroom. She came in with Brooke Stenstrom, the daughter of former Stanford quarterback Steve Stenstrom (one of Maxmin’s former students) and at that point a freshman swimmer for the Cardinal.
“No, this couldn’t be,” Maxmin thought to herself. But then: “It’s gotta be.”
Yes, this was Katie Ledecky. Six weeks earlier, she had been captivating the world in Rio de Janeiro, where she won four Olympic gold medals and set stunning world records in the 400 and 800 free. Now, she was walking into what Maxmin figured was her first-ever college class.
Maxmin remembers being nervous and a little bit star-struck that first day. Yes, she had watched the Olympics and knew who Katie Ledecky was, and yes, she knew that Ledecky’s post-Rio destination was Stanford.
She had taught several top-notch athletes and even swimmers over the years, including Summer Sanders and Jenny Thompson and, more recently, Elaine Breeden. Still, Maxmin pointed out that “you don’t want to screw up in front of such a student.”
After that first class, Ledecky and Stenstrom visited with Maxmin to explain that they would miss classes on occasion for swim meets, and the professor was accommodating.
“Katie was very appreciative when I said, ‘I’ll save the handouts, I’ll save the lecture notes, and if you have any questions, come in on Sunday, and we’ll discuss it,’” Maxmin recalled. “My initial reaction was, ‘This woman is just so grateful for the smallest things you can offer her.’”
Over the next few months, Ledecky “realized I was not an ogre,” and she began attending Maxmin’s office hours. The two discussed the class, “Archaic Greek Art,” and also life, the huge changes that Ledecky had made: Her new coach and swimming situation and her living situation with new roommates. Aside from international trips, Ledecky had never lived away from her parents’ home on the other side of the country.
“From what I could gather, she just made that transition with that effortless ease with which she breaks records,” Maxmin said. “She just made college seem easy.”
In the 35 years Maxmin has taught at Stanford, a handful of students stand out in her mind. One was Cory Booker, then a tight end on the Stanford football team and now a U.S. senator from New Jersey. This quarter, she is teaching “this amazing kid from Kentucky who has cerebral palsy and is one of the most gifted writers, speakers, actors I’ve ever met.”
She put Ledecky in that category, too, because of the intensity with which she eagerly attacked her coursework. For all the Ledecky comparisons out there meant to underscore her greatness, this is probably the first time you have ever heard her compared to a U.S. senator.
In her first essay for the class, Ledecky considered ancient Greek athletes, admired for their physical qualities and for their military skills, and ancient Greek artisans, considered soft and mentally weak.
“She went after this topic, of how despite the dramatic differences between the man of action, the athlete-warrior venerated by the Greeks, and the sedentary, low-paid, short-lived artisans and athletes, what elements in common would they have to discuss?” Maxmin said. “It’s a question that a lot of student-athletes didn’t go after because they realized it was harder than it seemed.
“She found complications and ambiguities that I didn’t know were there. It was just this carefully crafted, beautifully written, persuasively argued essay.”
In her second paper for the class, Ledecky discussed the Greek tradition of burying fragments of broken antiquities. The assignment she chose was to argue against Greek principle that the fragments were just as finished as the unbroken finished product.
Ledecky was the only student in the class to choose that topic. She compared fragments of broken artwork to poetry and the completed whole to prose with a beginning, middle and end—both valuable, but the fragments allow observers to fill in the missing pieces. Maxmin called the paper “magical.”
It was in between completing those two assignments that Ledecky took a trip to Columbus, Ohio, and broke her own American records in both the 500 and 1650 free.
Same old Katie in the pool, but out of it, she was pursuing the academics she had put on hold for one year to zero in on the Olympic Games. And that same competitive spirit that Ledecky had showed so often in the pool was now manifesting itself in her classes.
Maxmin recalled conversations with political science and international relations professors about Ledecky: “They’re not easily impressed, and they are really impressed with her,” Maxmin said.
“She knows what it feels like to give everything she has to a challenge. I think she’s always competing with herself, and she would be unhappy if she left her second best on a paper. I think what she signs her name to is the absolute best that she can do.”
Yeah, that sounds like the person who, after completing a FINA World Championships where she won six medals, five of them gold, spoke about “taking what I’ve learned and using it to move forward.” That’s classic Ledecky. It’s ingrained in her DNA to always expect her best effort, in whatever she’s doing.
Three weeks before Ledecky would swim in her first final of those World Championships in the 400 free, she was walking through a crowded Phoenix airport terminal. This was the morning after the U.S. National Championships, and Ledecky and several of her teammates were heading for their connecting flight back to the Bay Area.
Wearing her Stanford swimming t-shirt and carrying a backpack, Ledecky completely blended in. Undoubtedly, plenty of the passengers in the airport that day had watched her swim in the Olympics, but none made the connection between what they had seen on television and the tall girl with dirty blond hair in the red shirt.
Just how Ledecky likes it best. That’s what she wanted out of Stanford, a place where she could come and just be another student—particularly in that first quarter of school, right after the Olympics.
“Her classmates realized who she was and had this respect that I first saw when Tiger Woods was here,” Maxmin recalled. “They just treated her like everybody else. I love them for it. That’s a real gift not to become a groupie, someone who looks after stars and wants to be part of their circle. The kids could not have been more poised about that.”
Still, of course the class was curious about the champion in their midst. During that quarter, Maxmin and the entire class attended a group lunch, and the students went around the room, introduced themselves and explained a little bit of their backstory.
“It came to Katie, and you could tell people were getting really excited about what she was going to say. She said, ‘My name is Katie,’ just completely down to earth again, ‘and I’m from just outside of Washington, D.C.’” Maxmin said. “She paused, and she said, ‘Oh, and I swim.’
“The whole room just exploded with a kind of repressed excitement and tension and expectation that had been building up all quarter. It was the first time they kind of let go and realized, ‘Look at this kid we have in our class.’ It was unforgettable.”
The swimming community has seen a Ledecky that is undeniably happy at Stanford and emotionally invested in her team. After the Cardinal secured a national championship in 2017, Ledecky kept her composure, but it was evident that she was on the brink of revealing emotion, particularly when she discussed her feelings for senior and team leader Lia Neal.
But more than just the team, Ledecky fell in love with the place and what it could offer her.
“I think what she loves about Stanford and what Stanford is really good at is letting exceptional people enjoy the tail end of childhood and be a normal student, and I think she’s loved that here,” Maxmin said.
This week, Ledecky returns to the arena where she is anything but normal: the competition pool and, specifically, her second NCAA championships. She will be favored for wins in the 500 free, 400 IM and 1650 free, and she could lower her American and NCAA records in all three. Once again, she will probably swim some time that makes everyone in attendance shake their heads in awe.
But who is this woman who has captivated the world in the pool every year since 2012? According to one of the people at Stanford who knows her best, the real Ledecky is not that far off the persona she has built in the pool.
“She is inspirational, to say the least.”