By David Rieder.
After winning four Olympic gold medals, Katie Ledecky had hardly any time to savor her success. Less than a month after she returned to the United States from Rio, she found herself in Hawaii, not for some tropical vacation time but for an early season training camp with her new Stanford teammates.
It was the start of her next adventure: college. Ledecky uprooted her life and moved west in one of life’s major transitions—but to the outside world, it was same old Ledecky.
She set Avery Aquatics Center pool records in her very first dual meet with the Cardinal, and in November, she set two American records, chopping time off her own marks in the 500 free and 1650 free at the Ohio State Invitational.
The year went on, and for the most part, it was same old Ledecky—she broke her 500 free American record twice more, won three individual NCAA titles and helped Stanford erase a 19-year NCAA title drought before she turned her attention straight to long course and that summer’s World Championships.
The week after NCAAs, Ledecky was back on campus in Palo Alto, Calif., for final exams. As soon as those were over, she flew to Colorado Springs, Colo., for altitude training. No break.
This is Ledecky, though—freak-of-nature talented, a workhorse and, before 2017, unbeaten in individual finals at international meets. It’s just expected that she’s going to do what she seemingly always does—win, break records, dominate, etc.
But that reality is not Ledecky’s. For her, it was a challenging year, and that’s downright reasonable for someone making a huge life change like going to college while also trying to re-focus after accomplishing virtually every goal she had ever set in the span of a week.
“In 2016, I achieved the goals I had for three years, and I think just re-setting those goals was really tough last year,” Ledecky said.
In 2017, after four straight years of setting at least two world records, Ledecky failed to set any. Her competition chipped away at her margins of victory in the 400, 800 and 1500 free at Worlds, and in the 200 free, she did come up short.
Yes, it’s worth remembering that she did win five gold medals (including relays) and a silver, which is statistically her best-ever haul at an international meet. “By no means did I have a disappointing summer,” Ledecky said at the USA College Challenge last month in Los Angeles.
But “not disappointing” does not equal satisfied—and after finishing eight seconds off her own world record in the 800 free at Worlds, it was obvious that her results from that meet did not fulfill her own expectations.
“I always wish there was more. I’ve never walked away from a season completely satisfied, even last year,” Ledecky said in Budapest. “This year, just knowing that I didn’t really set as high of goals or have that same motivation, just always being on and on and on, just going through a lot of transitions and changes this year, knowing that I’ve gone through that now, I can really take what I’ve learned and use it moving forward.”
After Budapest, she was hungry for more success, as one might expect. At College Challenge, she acknowledged that her “fire” had indeed returned as she had returned to training in year two at Stanford.
But something else in her post-Worlds quote should be eye-catching: “just always being on and on and on.” Sounds like someone in need of some mental refreshment.
Ledecky finished competing in Budapest July 29—and then she took all of August off.
“I got in the water once or twice, barely did anything,” she said. “I took some time off, just relaxed, and I think I really needed that.”
Back in the pool after her break, her life had settled down compared to freshman year. Ledecky explained that knowing her way around Stanford’s campus and knowing what to expect in training helped. “The last few weeks I’ve had some of my best weeks at Stanford,” she said.
So far this season, same old Ledecky. Putting on suits for the only time this season at College Challenge, Ledecky set the top times in the country in the 200, 500 and 1000 freestyles, and she figures to be even faster this weekend at the Cardinal’s mid-season meet, the Art Adamson Invitational.
Record watch? Ledecky did, after all, break her own American records in the 500 and 1650 over the same weekend last year, when Stanford competed at the Ohio State Invite.
Consider it possible, though not probable. The 1650 probably represents her best chance at a record, given that her 15:03.92 set at Ohio State last year still stands. She has taken down her record in the 500 by a further two seconds since then, and a time in the 4:24-range seems highly unlikely for mid-November.
And, no, Ledecky gets no demerits for not breaking any American records in November.
Thinking big picture for Ledecky, she’s already one of the all-time greats. Even coming off a year where she was less spectacular than usual, she remains one of the world’s best swimmers—and even if she keeps swimming a bit off her best times for the next three years, she will almost certainly remain one of the world’s best swimmers.
But does anyone think those are her goals, just to hang on?
Sometime in the past few months, she sat down with Greg Meehan, her coach at Stanford, for the long-awaited meeting to chart out her course to 2020 and the Olympics in Tokyo—what she wants to accomplish there and what she wants to accomplish beforehand.
In short course, Ledecky should continue to challenge 15-minute barrier in the 1650. It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that she would swim that fast at the NCAA championships this past year, so it was a letdown to many when she came up a bit short.
If and when Ledecky does finish a mile with the minutes box reading “14,” that should be celebrated as a brilliant athletic accomplishment, not scoffed at as “about time.” Remember that the No. 2 all-time performer (Katie Hoff) has a best time of 15:24.35.
Ledecky is exceptional, and her abilities deserve to be honored each time she puts on a truly exceptional performance, as she has so many times over the past six years. Just give her a break every now and then.