“Just Add Water”: Reviewing Katie Ledecky’s Autobiography

Courtesy: John Culhane

Katie Ledecky likes rectangles and rules.

In Just Add Water, her absorbing, well-written new autobiography, Ledecky confesses that she’s not enamored of open water swimming. She’s not comfortable when she “can’t see the bottom, when there are fish swimming around, along with other scary creatures and the vast unknown.” As she says: “I like the known. I like clear parameters.”

So when she lists all of her favorite places to swim, it’s scarcely surprising that they’re all pools, not natural bodies of water. Those rectangles with their endless black lines are where she’s the scary creature, having dominated distance freestyle swimming since, it seems, forever. And based on her guilelessly enthusiastic description of her love of the water, no one reading this book should expect her hydro-hammerlock to end soon. Although the trials for her fourth spot on the U.S. Olympic Swim Team begin next week, she’s already beginning to set her sights on the 2008 Games in Los Angeles.

But what drives all this?

It started at the Palisades Swim and Tennis Club, a sylvan enclave just outside of Bethesda, Maryland, where Ledecky entered – and lost – her first swim meet, at age 6. With her older brother Michael, and some encouragement from her parents, Katie Ledecky joined the low-key summer swim team in 2003. She devotes an entire chapter to that beginning; to this day, she says, Palisades “her most meaningful place to swim.” As recently as 2014 – by which time she was an Olympic gold medalist and a world record holder – she returned to Palisades for one last swim meet. (Guess how she did.)

From there, her rise was, paradoxically, both deliberate and meteoric. When she burst into public view by winning the 800-meter freestyle at the 2012 Olympic trials, she had already devoted much of her waking life to every aspect of swimming. A self-confessed swim nerd and “information sponge,” Ledecky combined her endless appetite for training with obsessive attention to every detail of her craft. Watch how she finishes every race with her head down, driving to the wall. That’s the result of practicing that skill endlessly. That signature “galloping” stroke? It’s something her first serious coach noticed once, and then worked with her on until it became the iconic freestyle we’ve been seeing since 2012. She watches and notes how her competitors strategize their races. You can read the rest for yourself. It’s an impressive list!

Just Add Water has an odd rhythm – a gallop? – for an autobiography. Some of the chapters chronicle Ledecky, the Swimmer. Others, though, are paeans to her family; her brother Michael; her parents; and four separate chapters on each of her grandparents. Yet somehow this approach works, creating a mosaic view of this astonishing athlete, where every turn of the kaleidoscope brings a new facet into sharp focus. Where’d she get that ability to swim through the pain and find the joy? From her Grandma Hagan, age 98, who lives in North Dakota and still has to be tricked into taking a nap, and from her late Grandma Berta. How’d she rise to this unmatched pinnacle? Perhaps her Grandpa Jerry, who left the misery of Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia to eventually earn a Ph.D. in Economics from N.Y.U., had an imprint on Ledecky, too.

She’s too smart and nuanced to reduce these influences to simple explanations for her success. There isn’t one, of course. But by combining the raw materials in these accounts of her ancestors, her coaches (each of whom get their own, reverential chapter), and her family and friends (whose beneficial and practical influences also suffuse the book), Ledecky effectively guides the reader to an understanding of how she became quite possibly the greatest female swimmer of all time. (If you want to make the case for, say, Kristina Egerszegi or Sarah Sjöström, I’ll listen. But you probably won’t convince me. Their last names are too hard to spell, and I don’t have a keyboard that can create an umlaut.)

Ledecky also lets the reader in on a few things she’s mostly kept quiet about until now. The details of her performance at the 2019 World Championships in Korea, where she was much sicker than we’d realized, are laid bare. And we learn that she has a condition called postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which can cause dizziness, shortness of breath, and chest pains, when moving from lying down to standing up. She’s managing it well enough through nutrition and hydration, but…still. She’s known about this since 2015, but I’ll bet few knew about it before the release of Just Add Water.

For this reviewer, though, the most compelling threads to Ledecky’s narrative involve her strong commitment to the recognition and equality of women (and girls) in sports. In the final chapter, “Swim Like a Girl,” she gives props to all the role-model women who have coached and mentored her along the way, and speaks fondly of the sorority of women swimmers who support each other’s success. (There’s a particularly warm vignette about Rebecca Adlington, the hometown favorite at the London Olympics whom Ledecky memorably upset.) She even allows herself a rare bit of criticism, directed at some well-known male swimmers, for saying she “swims like a guy.” Why not say, rather, that she “swims like Katie Ledecky.” (All credit here to Rowdy Gaines for that covertly feminist insight.)

And the Girl Power energy traces back to one person in particular – her mother, Mary Gen. A middle-distance swimmer who went out fast and held on (hmm…) “Mom” (as the chapter is captioned) was one of the first beneficiaries of Title IX, receiving a swimming scholarship at the University of New Mexico. She qualified for Nationals, twice. She taught by examples of decency, fairness, and self-respect, and made sure that young Katie remained grounded. She and Lekdecky’s Dad, David (a Yale-educated lawyer) laughed at the idea that Ledecky be home-schooled to further her swimming career, because they understood the importance of social connections she’d be losing thereby.

Katie Ledecky’s love of family and swimming is so unalloyed that it’s hard to resist cynicism. (Where’s the drama that most of us have lived through? Come on!) But there’s no part of her account that doesn’t come through as genuine, and deeply felt. As she notes, some of her success is attributable to plain good luck. And a huge chunk of that emerges from her supportive, hard-working, and loving family.

Through it all, what emerges is Katie Ledecky’s fundamental decency, sense of humor (a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan? Who knew?), and sheer doggedness. What will she do when she finally emerges, waterlogged, from those 50-meter rectangles that have provided such joy for so long? Not even she knows. Perhaps she’ll become a writer; she’s already quite good at it. (I hardly need to mention that this isn’t one of those celebrity autobiographies that’s primarily written by a co-author, whose name typically appears in microscopic font under that of the main attraction. It’s Ledecky’s work alone.)

Whatever she chooses, though, the qualities – led by buoyant(!) enthusiasm – that have fueled her unparalleled success will continue to drive a successful life. We should all be so lucky.


John Culhane is a professor of law and Co-Director of the Family Health Law & Policy Institute at Widener University Delaware Law School. Besides his work in education, he’s also a prolific author who has been a contributing writer for Slate Magazine, and whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Miami Herald, the Huffington Post, Dissent Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Philadelphia City Paper, among others.

John himself is a Masters’ swimmer, a self-described ‘swimming enthusiast,’ and was a captain of the men’s swim team at the College of William & Mary. He resides in Philadelphia with his husband and his twin daughters.

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1 month ago

I am about halfway through the book and am thoroughly enjoying it!

1 month ago

Wow. Personally writing a book while engaged as a full-time athlete (who trains as much as she does) is a substantial feat. As pointed out in this article, the “co-author” is usually the true author. The athlete does a series of interviews (or writes a few notes) so the “co-author” can do the heavy work.

In addition to her serious training, there are media responsibilities, endorsements, travel, etc.

Writing a book too? Just another example of her class, drive and standards. She is an incredible person.

Chanandler Bong
1 month ago

Katie is a great swimmer and might even be a great writer, but she 100% had a ghost writer. That’s why they’re called ghost writers. They get paid and their name appears nowhere.

Octavio Gupta
1 month ago

She is the best female swimmer of all time.

1 month ago

Go Porpoises! Most memoirs / biographies have narrators — Katie narrates this herself in the audio version. Feels like she is in your living room while listening. Cannot wait to see her add additional chapters over the next few weeks and months. Go USA!!! #callmemaybe