Katie Ledecky Memoir Excerpt “JUST ADD WATER: My Swimming Life”

10-time Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky has penned her memoir for your summer read ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.   Ledecky stands alone among her peers, a towering champion consistently winning since she was 15 years old at the 2012 London Olympics. If you ever wanted to dive deeper into who Ledecky is, this is the opportunity.

Purchase here: JUST ADD WATER: My Swimming Life  

Excerpted from:
JUST ADD WATER: My Swimming Life
Copyright © 2024 by Katie Ledecky. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  All rights reserved.


I’m in the pool.

I’m always in the pool. Hours a day, nearly every day, since I was a toddler perched on the side ladder, blowing bubbles and kicking my feet. The pool is and has always been my refuge. It functions as my playground, my hobby, my passion, my workplace, my lifeblood.

Not too long ago, a reporter asked one of my coaches for estimates of the kind of mileage I would’ve logged in different years in my career. He figured I would’ve easily swum from Bethesda, Maryland, where I was raised, to Tokyo, where I competed at the most recent Olympics. It was wild to imagine that all the lanes I’ve swum, added together, could’ve led me across the sea.

When I review the stats that get posted about my swims, it opens my eyes to just how long I’ve been at this sport. Take the 800 free, for example. Right now I have twenty-nine of the top thirty times in history. There are a lot of my competitors who I don’t think have even swum twenty-nine 800 freestyles in their lives. I’ve swum, probably, the most 800 and 1500 freestyles of anyone, ever.

Seeing those numbers, just comprehending the mileage on my body, makes me appreciate the longevity of my career. When I look up how many occasions I’ve swum any given event, year after year, I’m left with the same conclusion: Wow, that’s a lot of swim meets. On average, across my swimming career, I’d estimate I swim nine meets annually. It’s been twenty years now. That’s 180 meets. That means 180 multi-day meets of waking up with the unique excitement that fills me on race day, going through countless warm-up and warm-down laps, and waiting through heats for my turn to dive into my race. And somehow it still feels like yesterday that I first dipped my feet in the pool.

I am many things—daughter, sister, Stanford graduate, Olympian— but the architecture that grounds and supports all those roles is my identity as a swimmer. Which is why, should you ever need to find me—you should first look in the pool.

Today the pool hurts. Well, I hurt. My arms and legs feel like they’re filled with cement. I’m ramping up training to try to qualify for the Paris Olympics, which would be my fourth Olympic Games.

My story is unique in that I did not set out early on with the goal to become a professional athlete. I’ve been swimming in races since I was six years old—more than twenty years now—but I began as a truly mediocre swimmer. My initial ambition as a competitor was simply to make it across the pool without stopping. In my very first swim—a 25 free—I literally stopped on the lane line about ten times. It became a race between me and the girl next to me to see who stopped the least. We kept stopping to wipe the chlorine from our face and check that we hadn’t drifted into another lane. It was hilarious.

I’ve heard a lot of my swimming peers say that when they were young, they always knew they wanted to go to the Games, but that wasn’t my experience. Back then I looked at Olympians and thought you had to be a superhero to reach that level. I couldn’t relate what I was doing in the pool to what I saw them do on television. They seemed to be so fast, so focused, so otherworldly.

And yet here I am, entering what we swimmers call our “Olympic Year,” a season that brings with it a rush of promise. The Olympic Year begins on September 1, when we start back after the summer break. College swimming runs through the fall, then the championship meets begin in February and March; that’s all short-course yards. During that time, people are still training for Olympic Trials, and as a professional swimmer, I don’t compete in the collegiate meets anymore. Throughout the fall and winter, training and racing may include short-course yards, short-course meters, and long-course meters. From March until the end of the summer, it’s only long-course racing. Once the final summer competition of the pre–Olympic Year is over (for me, that was World Championships at the end of July 2023), that’s when it’s like—Oh, it’s time. The Olympic Year has begun.

When I turn that calendar page to begin the Olympic year, I can feel the excitement. A sense of urgency descends. The clock begins ticking louder. Every swim counts.

I’m experiencing it as I write this, in fact. I’m doing a bit more than I normally would in the pool, escalating every facet of my training so I can shave slices of seconds from my prior times. I know I need to be in better shape than I was last year, faster than I was during the last Games. I want to be ahead of myself.

Maybe I’ve always wanted that.

I’M PICTURING MY FIRST summer-league pool. The temperature, the scent of the chlorine and how it mixes with the air. Sharp, enveloping. I love that smell. When I was three, my mom would take my brother and me to a neighborhood pool close to our house. My brother could already swim, and I remember doing bobs, where you hold on to the ledge and dip up and down in the water. My mother was the one who taught me how to float on my back, how to hold my breath.

Humans are not natural-born swimmers. Unlike most animals, we must be taught. We don’t enter our lives swim-ready. Quite the contrary. Many of us possess a natural fear of the water, a caution that makes sense, given the consequences of not knowing how to stay afloat.

I never had that fear.

It’s not that I’m fearless. I love dogs, but certain animals freak me out. I worry about people I love dying. I find horror movies unpleasant. But the pool never frightened me. You see videos of babies yanking their feet up when they dip into the wet or kids bawling during swim lessons. But I couldn’t wait to submerge myself in the water. It was love at first plunge.

I remember playing sharks and minnows, Marco Polo, the sensation of jumping into the pool before I learned any strokes. I felt more at home in the water than on land. I felt free.

Swimming hit me differently than other sports. It provided resistance. That elemental shift from moving through air to moving through water was the heart of my relationship with the pool. That and the inherent paradoxes water offered. Water made me feel weightless even as it forced me to pull more weight while I swam. In a pool, I was unencumbered and able to flip and turn and spin my body in every direction. I was also hemmed in by a pen of concrete. It represented creativity within bounds. When I wasn’t in the pool, I yearned for the buoyancy. I craved the resistance. I wanted, more than anything, to test my limits in the water. So I did. Starting at age six. And never once stopping since.

I swam my first race on June 25, 2003. I got assigned lane three. Like I said, I was not some prodigy who dove into the water and was able to zoom to the end. There I was, bobbing around in bug-eyed goggles, wiping my nose when I stopped on the lane rope, which was often (the stopping and the nose wiping). During one of these pauses, my eyes landed on the other swimmers cruising by. And something sparked. I let go of the rope and swam, plowing ahead, arms spinning like windmills till I hit the wall. I managed to come in second in the eight-and-under 25-yard freestyle.

My dad filmed the race on his camcorder, and when I finished, he did an interview with me from the pool deck.

“Tell me about your first race. How was it?” he asked.

“Great!” I answered, my heart beating like a drum in my chest. He asked what I was thinking about in the pool.

“Nothing!” I said.

Then he said, “Just trying to finish, huh?”

“Just trying hard,” I replied, grinning the whole time.

I always smile when I think about that video. Not so much because it was my first race but because of the way I answered my dad. My observations as an eager, exhausted six-year-old have become the template for my whole swimming journey. Great. Hard. Just trying to finish.

In the twenty years since that day, swimming has not ceased being hard. Uniquely so. It tests my body and my psyche equally. It challenges me like I imagine a marathon would—a marathon with the added burden of the force of water reminding me with every stroke what I’m up against. But to my mind, the hard is kind of what makes swimming great. Giving your best effort has been baked into my DNA for generations. Trying hard is the whole point. It’s what makes something as simple as swimming laps meaningful.

I realize I didn’t grasp the significance of this when I was a kid. But some part of my brain or my body understood that happiness would result from being in a space where the mind can run quiet, and the body can try hard. Swimming is an unusual career in that it comes down to the will of the swimmer, in this case me. I am the only one who has been there in the pool with me every stroke of the way. I had the incredible luck of being mentored by a series of devoted and wise coaches willing to lift me up without making swimming my sole raison d’être. My family did the same. I was never pressured to perform by anyone but myself. Of the many twists of fate that lead to greatness, this support system was the one for which I’m most grateful. It’s what I credit with keeping me sane and grounded all these years.

My goal was to better myself through swimming. To discover who I was and what I was made of. The pool provided the ideal instrument for that journey. The Olympic medals, the world records, those are incredible achievements. But I’m more gratified by how swimming has shaped me. How the pursuit has molded me into the best version of myself.

One thing I’ve learned, maybe the most important thing, is that you are who you are in the moment only because of all the moments that came before it. Past is prologue in swimming. Same goes for life. Swimming has rendered me into someone I wouldn’t be otherwise. Long after another swimmer breaks my records, I’ll still have the benefit of being raised in and by the pool. I hope my tenacity outlasts any blip of athletic fame. That would be the gift of a lifetime.

For as long as I’ve been swimming, I’ve had people asking how I got where I am. They speculate about my physiology, analyze the geometry of my body, comb through my training. For a lot of people in the sporting community, I am a puzzle to be solved. A code that, if cracked, will enable them to replicate my results. When I was young, they asked my parents. Then my coaches. Now the inquiring minds come to the source.

This book is my answer. My attempt to lay out all the ingredients of my swimming life.

Becoming a successful athlete isn’t accomplished without the help of many others. And as I now reflect on my childhood, teenage years, and early twenties, I can begin to grasp and understand how and why I developed into the person I am today. The people who influenced my character. The places that welcomed me. The life experiences that molded me into the dedicated swimmer I am today, opening my eyes and heart to every possibility until all that was left was to just add water.


Enter to win a special sweepstakes on SwimSwamNews Instagram. Three winners will receive a copy of the book with a signed bookplate from Katie!

Copyright © 2024 by Katie Ledecky. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 days ago

8 hour drive to trials? 8 hour Katie Ledecky audio book (spotify premium)? YES PLEASE!!!

Last edited 11 days ago by HeatFan14
11 days ago

It’s included with Spotify premium 🙂

11 days ago

Ledecky looking hot here

11 days ago

It’s obviously not going to win any literary awards, but there is A LOT of good in here especially for aspiring age group swimmers and swim parents. Talks about the proper role of her support group/parents.

“the hard is kind of what makes swimming great”… if every talented up and comer embraced that mentality what a difference it would make!

“A space where the mind can run quiet, and the body can try hard“ – beautiful!

For most of us who who will never reach the Olympics, I hope we share a more elemental belief with great swimmers like Katie Ledecky, the idea that swimming can help shape lives.

11 days ago

Hmmmmm – it’s only an excerpt I know. But it’s not very informative. Probably appealing more to the masses than to a true swim fan. I like more nitty-gritty information. But Ledecky has never been very forth-coming which of course is her right. (Always found it weird when she never said her competitors names for years.)

Reply to  Joel
11 days ago

Her biggest competitor is herself. She doesn’t fear competition and isn’t afraid to lose either. I hope she talks this in her book.

Reply to  Joel
11 days ago

she talked about them in the book…

Reply to  Geez
11 days ago

What did she say about them?

Reply to  Joel
11 days ago

I just received my book yesterday and there’s 256 pages of detailed information about Ledecky’s background, family, thoughts, winning Olympic gold at age 15, successful training under four different coaches, three Olympics and various World Championship swims, teammates and competitors, and a couple of medical issues she faced along the way. Great book.

Reply to  Babe
11 days ago

Fair enough. Is it really detailed?

Buffalo Joe
11 days ago

Excited to both read and gift Katie’s book. Excited it’s dropping now. Congrats!

11 days ago

I like it so far!

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

Read More »