Katie Ledecky Embraces Challenges to Come in Her New Gator Chapter

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) walks poolside after finishing second in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports
Katie Ledecky at the Tokyo Olympics -- Photo Courtesy: Grace Hollars/USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky Embraces Challenges to Come in Her New Gator Chapter

As Katie Ledecky fought to hold off Ariarne Titmus for Olympic gold in the 800 freestyle, her second individual gold of the Tokyo Games and her third-straight win in that event at an Olympics, the question dawned that this might be Ledecky’s final run at gold at the sport’s highest level. Ledecky is 24, and by the time the 2024 Olympics roll around, she will be 27, considered old for an elite distance swimmer. She was already the oldest swimmer in the 400 free final in Tokyo and among the oldest in her other events. So we wondered.

But Ledecky quickly threw water on the idea that she was done, insisting in her post-race conversation with NBC’s Michele Tafoya that she was all in for Paris, maybe beyond. She was non-committal about her plans for the next several months, but she did indicate a break was in order.

Well, Ledecky was dead serious about being committed to going for Paris. Otherwise, why would she be making the move to train at the University of Florida? She could continue on her most recent path or return to her previous one, and she would likely remain one of the best swimmers in the world. But instead, she chose Gainesville, where she will train under coaches Anthony Nesty and Steve Jungbluth — and alongside the two American men who won medals in longer freestyle races in Tokyo, Kieran Smith and Bobby Finke.

When outside observers considered where Ledecky would train over the next three years, it made sense that she would stick with Greg Meehan and co. at Stanford. She was clearly comfortable and happy in Palo Alto, and she achieved many of her career-best results during her years there. Another obvious possibility was a return to the Washington area to resume training with Bruce Gemmell, her coach during her magical run from after the 2012 Olympics until the 2016 Games.

But Ledecky chose to step outside those familiar comfort zones.

Aug 1, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Robert Finke (USA) celebrates after winning the men's 1500m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Bobby Finke was the surprise gold medalist in the 800 free and 1500 free at the Tokyo Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

Now, Ledecky will train in lanes next to Smith, who captured bronze in the men’s 400 free in Rio and also became the third-fastest man in U.S. history in the 200 free, and Finke, who stunned the world with epic final 50 splits to win gold in the 800 free and then the 1500 free. At Stanford, Ledecky had swum with elite swimmers, including two who qualified for Tokyo (Simone Manuel and Brooke Forde), but she never had any other females truly on her level as distance freestylers. And how could she have? In the entire world, only Titmus has ever threatened Ledecky at an event 400 meters or above.

Of course, Ledecky is no stranger to training with men. At Stanford, she would train alongside 2017 U.S. national champion True Sweetser and NCAA qualifier Liam Egan in distance sets. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sweetser said that training with Ledecky meant “plenty of times where I have swum a solid practice and I have had a good workout and she has been able to keep up with me the whole time or even beat me… If I’m having a bad day, then it’s just going to be embarrassing.”


The Challenge Ahead

In Tokyo, Ledecky swam well, and she added to her list of historical accomplishments — her 800 free victory made her just the third female swimmer to three-peat in any individiaul event, she became the first-ever gold medalist in the women’s 1500 freestyle, and her 10th career Olympic medal ranks her tied fifth among U.S. women in any sport (behind Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin and Allyson Felix). In perhaps the finest showdown of the Games, Ledecky swam the second-fastest 400 free of her life but could not keep pace with Titmus down the stretch.

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Greg Meehan and Katie Ledecky in 2019 — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

But she was not perfect, particularly when she fell to fifth place in the 200 free final, her time nowhere near her season best, let alone her lifetime best. Titmus posed a challenge and finished only 1.2 seconds behind in the 800 free, an incredibly small margin by Ledecky’s standards. She was nowhere close to her world records in the 800 or 1500. But as Meehan pointed out, that’s OK.

“As I step back and watch her if I take my coach hat off and just watch her as a young person — the expectation is always to perform at a certain level. And I hoped that she could get to this point where she is really happy and excited with her performances at the Olympics even though she didn’t go a best time. Her best times are so outstanding and she pushed them,” Meehan said. “For her to walk away feeling happy and satisfied with her medals and performances, that’s something to really be proud of.

Meanwhile, Titmus excelled in Tokyo, winning gold in both the 400 free and 200 free, and she acknowledged that much of her success was due to chasing the standard that Ledecky had set over the previous decade.

“I think that’s the beauty of sport,” Meehan said. “Someone sets a standard and then you’ve got 50 people right behind you that all of a sudden believe that they can do it. Ariarne has had an incredible Olympic Games, her first Olympic Games, and watching that 400 race, that’s going to be something that I’m going to remember for a pretty long time even though Katie was just second. It’s good for the sport, and I believe that it is good for Katie.”

But now it’s Titmus in the drivers’ seat and Ledecky chasing — and she is not content to fade away and let the 21-year-old Australian carry the mantle of world’s best.

Even in Tokyo, exhausted and drained from the long week of competing, Ledecky was invigorated thinking about her future chances to go head-to-head against Titmus.

“It’s awesome,” Ledecky said. “We’re really friendly and it’s amazing what she’s accomplished this week, as well. I’m really, really thrilled to have that kind of competition. It’s something that fuels me, and I know it fuels her as well. I hope that I can keep up and stay competitive here moving forward.”


Why Ledecky Swims On

Again, Ledecky has won 10 Olympic medals, and seven of them are gold. She has won 15 gold medals at the FINA World Championships. She has unquestionably clinched her place on swimming’s pantheon of all-time greats.

Essentially, she does not have to keep going. She owns an undergraduate degree from Stanford, with a major in psychology and a minor in political science. She is academically curious, and she is not going to keep following one path just because she has always followed that path. She could decide to do just about anything in her life, and she would surely succeed because of her temperament and her will, which has been plainly obvious to anyone who has watched her swim over the years.

Jul 28, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Katie Ledecky (USA) and Erica Sullivan (USA) celebrate after placing first and second in the women's 1500m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Katie Ledecky (right) and Erica Sullivan finished 1-2 in the women’s 1500 free at the Tokyo Olympics — Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA Today Sports

But she is continuing in the sport and moving on to train at Florida, leaving behind the coaches who have guided her to so much success and the teammates she has grown so close with. Why? Because she wants to.

Because for all Katie Ledecky has accomplished, she believes that she has more to experience and to accomplish in swimming. That means she wants to take some risks, put herself in new situations, maybe be a little uncomfortable in her situation. Training at Florida with Nesty, Jungbluth, Smith and Finke will certainly shake things up for Ledecky, and she hopes that gives her the juice to extend her greatness a few more years.

At stake, of course, are more future showdowns with Titmus and chances to further bolster her career statistics. Most significantly, adding three or more Olympic medals to her total would give her the most by any female athlete in U.S. history, and overall, she would rank second behind Michael Phelps.

She could go for a fourth-straight gold medal in the 800 free in Paris, and no woman has ever four-peated in any event. The only swimmer to do so? Phelps, in the 200 IM.

The competitive instincts that drive Ledecky will not let her rest until she has tried absolutely everything.

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