New Team, New Life, Same Fast Swimming for Katie Ledecky

Photo Courtesy: Matt Rubel of Rubel Photography

By David Rieder.

It was a gloomy, overcast Friday afternoon with rain intermittent and temperatures in the low-50s. In other words, exactly the weather one would not normally expect in Tempe, Ariz., even in January.

Swimmers huddled under parkas in between their races and sprinted into the locker rooms during breaks. Stanford head coach Greg Meehan was decked out in gloves and an orange Philadelphia Flyers beanie. No more than a couple hundred fans were in the bleachers at Mona Plummer Aquatic Center, with plenty understandably opting for an afternoon indoors.

Of course, it wasn’t just the elements that made this dual meet a little out of the ordinary. That seemingly anonymous six-foot Stanford swimmer who dominated the women’s 200 free happened to be Katie Ledecky, who less than six months ago returned from Rio de Janeiro a national hero.

Under better conditions, surely the stands would have been more crowded, with Ledecky and fellow U.S. Olympians Simone Manuel and Lia Neal in the house.

In Rio, Ledecky captured the attention of millions of Americans as she ran roughshod over both her competition and over her own world records on her way to five Olympic medals, four of them gold.

Late at night on August 12, it was all over. In her final race of the Games, Ledecky finished 11 second ahead of her competition in the 800 free. The final time was 8:04.79, almost two seconds under her previous world record.

In the water, Ledecky smiled and celebrated the result with U.S. teammate Leah Smith, but as she climbed out and walked through rows of assembled media, the moment began to sink in: her four-year journey to Rio was over, her ambitious goals (3:56 in the 400 and 8:05 in the 800) all hit or surpassed.

“I think this is just a testament to the goals [Nation’s Capital coach] Bruce [Gemmell] and I had three years ago, and we weren’t going to stop until we met those goals,” Ledecky said, before becoming reflective. “The memories mean a lot more than the medals to me, and the last four years have been incredible.”

She paused, and tears welled in her eyes.

“I’ve had a lot of fun—I don’t know why I’m crying! There were nights when I would go to bed and think about this day and how much fun I’ve had these past four years, and I would start crying right then. I just wanted to make this week count and have fun with it.”

Mission accomplished.

A few days after she finished competing but before leaving Rio, Ledecky joined fellow Olympians Michael Phelps and Simone Biles—and their combined 16 medals from Rio—for a Sports Illustrated cover shoot.

phelps-biles-ledecky-sports-illustrated

Photo Courtesy: Sports Illustrated

When she returned home to the Washington, D.C., area, she was welcomed by a massive crowd of fans at Dulles Airport. A week later, she tossed out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game while former MVP Bryce Harper held onto her medals.

But less than a month later, it was on to the next thing. Ledecky had already put off enrollment at Stanford for one year to stay with coach Bruce Gemmell in her preparation for the Olympics, and she would not wait any longer. In early September, she joined her new teammates in a pre-season training trip in Hawaii and started classes one week later.

Few could have blamed Ledecky for wanting a break. Phelps retired (for a second time) after Rio, and Biles—the same age as Ledecky—took a hiatus from gymnastics that she says will continue into 2018.

But while Phelps and Biles have been busy cashing in on their Olympic exploits, Ledecky has been plenty occupied herself, fitting in with her new team and adapting to her new life.

“It’s been really normal,” she said in November. “Just been able to go to class like everybody else. Everybody at Stanford is special. I’m amazed at the things I learn about my classmates every day.”

Ledecky knew she’d be living in dorm with roommates, but she would not find out even their names until she got to campus. As it turned out, Ledecky was assigned a quad room, and all three of her new roommates knew exactly who she was, but “they were cool about it.”

“Katie’s doing really well. She’s adjusted really well to live at Stanford—academically, in campus life, certainly in the team environment,” Meehan said in an appearance on Off Deck earlier this month.

“We’re continuing to learn about each other, as we are with all our freshman. She’s part of a really strong freshman class that we’re very excited about. There’re seven of them. Each day, every week, we’re continuing to learn more about them—how they train, how they respond, and so Katie is no different on that.”

Through all the changes in Ledecky’s life, one very notable constant has remained: her fast swimming.

She broke Avery Aquatics Center pool records in her very first dual meet with Stanford, and then when swimming against Texas in November, she broke the NCAA record in the 1000 free by more than ten seconds, posting a time of 9:10.49.

One week after the Texas meet, Ledecky broke her own American records in the 500 free (4:26.46) and 1650 free (15:03.92) at the Ohio State Invitational. Her 1000 split in the mile was 9:08.99, under her own NCAA record, and she also swam the second-fastest times in the country in both the 200 free (1:42.16) and 400 IM (4:00.65).

After more than two months out of competition and a two-week altitude training trip in Colorado Springs, Ledecky was back in the racing pool Friday afternoon against Arizona State, but with a twist. With the Cardinal expected to easily win the meet, Ledecky got the day off from her traditional distance events.

She cruised to a win in the 200 free, her time of 1:44.55 topping the field by more than four seconds, and then she made rare appearances in the 200 back and 100 fly. Her appearance in the 200 back was her first since October of 2011 (when she was 14), and her third-place time of 2:01.95 against ASU was a lifetime best by almost eight seconds. She also finished third in the 100 fly, posting a time of 55.16.

“We hadn’t raced since November, so it’s fun to shake the rust off a little bit,” Ledecky said afterwards. “1:44 in the 200 free is what I’ve been going at most of the dual meets this year, which is good. 200 back was fun. I hadn’t swum it in six years, so best time guaranteed, and 100 fly was just fun to get up and race.”

The Cardinal must get down to business soon enough, with a dual meet against Arizona set for Saturday and tough USC and Cal squads coming up on the schedule before the Pac-12 championship meet,  but Ledecky has fully bought in, embracing the new challenge and new journey.

“I love school. I love training. We’re coming up on the part of the season where it’s boom, boom, boom, and it makes it a lot of fun,” she said.

Since Rio, plenty has changed for Ledecky—moving across the country and starting college count as a big transition for anybody. In the pool, the red “S” cap has replaced the blue one of Nation’s Capital Swim Club.

But she’s still swimming fast—no one doubts that she will win both the 500 and 1650 at the NCAA championships, most likely in dominant and record-breaking fashion. And perhaps more importantly, she’s still relishing the process and experiences along the way.

One chapter of Ledecky’s swimming career and of her life ended in Rio, and another commenced a month later when she arrived at Stanford. But between the two chapters, so much seems remarkably similar.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. Paul Boman

    The insignia on Katie’s cap may change, but character is a constant.

  2. Carol Taylor Brooks

    thank you for this viewing relief…..tired, tired, tired of most posts

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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