As we prepare to, duly and justifiably, sing as a global chorus of hosannas in praise of Katie Ledecky, I’ve been reading all I can about the upcoming Games—doing my homework—and I have a couple of thoughts. They were spurred by comments by coaches, who are smarter than the rest of us. Katie possesses “aquatic strength” that can’t be built in the weight room. She is killing the boys—breaking their spirit, poor fellows—in training. She sprints her distance events.
All of this sounded like Martian to me, theoretical musings that had nothing to do with life on earth, specifically the sport I engage in when trundling to my daily mile.
I read two things that made me sit up. Katie, to combat sway, went from breathing on both sides to right-side-only—and not so terribly long ago. She was good breathing left-and-right, and now she’s better. I am a right-arm dominant fellow, and I’ve been breathing to my left my entire life, not least because I never learned to breath both ways.
Also: Her left goggle never comes out of the water. This seemed such an elemental thing, but prompted a wow.
I told my son, Jack, about these items after morning swim practice one day this summer, and he said, “I’ve always breathed both sides. I’m going to ask Dave”—one of his principal coaches—“if I should go to the right.” Whether he would spend time worrying about whether his lower goggle remained in the water went unaddressed, which is probably a good thing. I can imagine a kid drowning, fretting about such.
After all my reading, prepped now for the Opening Ceremonies, I arrived at a familiar conclusion: Ledecky—and Phelps and Bolt and, formerly, Vonn and Lewis and Owens and Didrikson and Weissmuller and Thorpe—are different than the rest of us, even as they are not. It profits us to realize this.
It’s tempting, with swimming, an elemental sport if you’re watching it, to forget that the elite athletes must develop best practices similar to those that allow David Ortiz to hit a low-outside slider 455 feet or Steph Curry to hit a half-court set shot. We know those things in “skill” sports to be impossible, the result of magical confluences settling themselves in a wizard of a human being. But we see a fine swimmer, and think we can do that.
Well, we can. We can swim, and we should. And we should encourage our kids. But I—and all of us—have met so many parents through the years who envision their children in the Olympics, and, well . . .
Katie, no prodigy, apparently didn’t have the big expectations voiced about her until she was 13, and even then her dad scoffed at the notion of such a future, and made sure to keep any pressure off. She herself needed to be in the pool, and for endless hours. Who among us, or whose kids, have that need.
Bob Bowman recently said that young Michael Phelps never missed a practice in five years—maybe one due to a Baltimore snowstorm—and without that commitment, he would have been, perhaps, a seventh less accomplished than he proved to be. That means: not the best swimmer ever.
So the commitment, certainly. Some of us drink and some of us still smoke, some of us overeat or eat the wrong things, and therefore we will not swim—or jog, or play tennis—as well tomorrow as we might. Goes for our kids, too.
Then there are genetics. It had been said that Phelps, with his long torso and relatively shortish legs, is the perfect model of a swimmer.
But Ledecky doesn’t share that profile, so what is it?
It’s the drive, as said, and the will to listen, the Spartan lifestyle, and that amorphous, gifted “aquatic strength.” It’s a package built on mystery and hidden, small ingredients.
None of us can be Katie Ledecky.
The Ledeckys—and Franklins and Phelpses and Currys and such—simply arrive, and then we would do well to see what small, attainable bits of inspiration they might impart.
Consider: the skier Bode Miller used to push a sand-filled clay-court roller from his parents’ tennis camp up the severe hills of Franconia, New Hampshire, to make himself fitter. I know those hills, and I recognize insanity.
Ryan Lochte used to do similar things. Who among us would or could? But the extreme irregularities of approaching life are what translates to irregular excellence on the slopes, or in the pool. Irregular equates, more politely, with unique.
So don’t try to emulate Katie Ledecky next week, and don’t ask your kids to. Just appreciate her. And, perhaps, take a tip or two that might apply.
Get a good night’s sleep. Come to practice—yours or theirs—ready. Combat sway.
And if you can keep that lower goggle in the water and hide your breathing, do so—but don’t worry about it.
Courtesy of and written by Robert Sullivan.