Katie Ledecky’s Willingness to Fail is Her Greatest Talent

Remember the Rio Olympics?

That big swim meet that happened in Brazil a couple years ago?

Sure ya do.

There were some big performances and results.

Adam Peaty going to town on the 100m breaststroke world record.

Michael Phelps’ final meet (and that PhelpsFace thing).

And of course, Katie Ledecky running roughshod over everybody.

If you watched the meet that week, you were witness to Katie Ledecky taking the women’s freestyle events and make them all clean and fold her laundry.

Sheer domination.

And during the events you heard commentators, analysts and anyone with a microphone talk about how special she is.

How talented and gifted she is…

How her technique is 12% more efficient, and this, that, and the other thing.

But there was one thing they didn’t talk about.

And that’s because it’s doesn’t fit into the vignettes and narratives of Olympics coverage.

After all, we lionize these swimmers to the point that they might as well be from outer space.

But if you read about her backstory, you will come understand that there is a “gift” or “talent” that Ledecky has that has nothing really to do with being talented or gifted.

Katie is willing to fail in the pursuit of her goals.

And fail hard.

When Hard Work is Fun, Awesomeness Ensues

As a six-year-old, at a local meet, Ledecky competes in a 25-yard race. Several times over the course of a the one-lap race she stops to hang on the lane rope and catch her breath.

She struggles to complete the race, and when she does, her dad has a video camera to capture:

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

“Great,” she says, beaming. “That was hard!”

Her coach at NCAP, Bruce Gemmell, later recounts this story, noting that this is the attitude she has with training and competition to this day.

For Ledecky, hard work is in itself the reward.

The challenge is—dare we say it—fun.

“Her strength is not in any physical attribute,” says Gemmell. “It’s not even in any particular technique. It’s her overwhelming desire to do what she needs to do to get better.”

“Empty the tank”

The term “hard work” is a bit vague, isn’t it?

Without something concrete to measure it’s a bit open ended.

Our coaches, parents and teachers have all told us over and over again that hard work pays off. It’s implied that if we work hard good things will happen.

For Ledecky, it’s not enough to work hard, it’s about being willing to fail, to push herself to the point of failure over and over again and not get discouraged.

Although this might sound simplistic, a lot of athletes have a really hard time with doing this. It’s  mentally and physically exhausting to push and stretch ourselves consistently to a breaking point.

It requires leaving your comfort zone, to push yourself beyond what is normal or familiar, and it is just as tough mentally to do so as it is to do so physically.

“There are days she fails catastrophically,” says Gemmell. “She fails in practice more than anybody in her [training] group, because she’ll start out like, ‘This is the pace I need to swim in the race, so I need to replicate it in practice.’ And she’ll go six repeats like that, and the tank goes empty and she just falls off. But you know what? She’ll come back the next day and try it again. And on the third day, she’ll nail it. And she’s been doing this since the first day I walked on the deck with her.”

Mental toughness is sharpened at practice

For most swimmers the idea of being mentally tough is something they only really think about during competition.

The view mental training skills and toughness in the same way that they view their tech suit and racing goggles—something that is carefully stored until the night before the big meet…

Time to race? Better dust off the old “mental toughness” cheat codes.

But to gain the kind of durability and confidence in competition you need to have invested the hard work and challenge in practice.

You need to be willing to run face-first into failure at practice over and over again.

Ledecky’s competitive fire is visible in competition, but what helps distance her from the competition is bringing that competitive rage to practice each day.

“You look at Katie, just like with Michael, and you realize the differentiator is between the ears. And their hearts. Their appetite for competition, their unwillingness to lose, and their embracing the challenge. And not just the challenge on competition day, which is a huge part, but the challenge of the training grind,” says Gemmell.

How to “Fail” Like a Ledecky

Very few of us will ever experience the dizzying heights of success that Ledecky has attained. She could retire today and go down as one of the greatest ever.

But we can take some of the mental approach that she uses for our own goals in the pool.

Set challenging goals for yourself in training.

It’s not enough to have big goals for the season—that’s the easy part. Have goals for training, a specific race pace or stroke count, for example, and hammer away at them until you master them. And when you do, set yourself a new, more challenging bar to rise towards.

Don’t back away from challenges.

Your training program should ask more from you. Not just your best, but a shade more. Failing is what practice is for. Sure, saying that you won’t back down from challenges is practice is easier said than done, but the kind of resilience you develop is championship swimmer material.

Be competitive in practice.

Some swimmers seem to be just born to have that racer’s edge. And while some swimmers come by it more naturally than others, it is something that can be developed in practice.

Be competitive with yourself and with your teammates in practice. Not only will this foster an environment in training that demands the best of everyone, but it will help hone the competitive instinct that will come in handy when you are stepping up on the blocks.

Be willing to look a little silly.

Failing on an interval or a set is rarely pretty.

Getting to that point hurts.

Our technique is starting to fall apart, our legs feel like cement, our lungs are yelping for air.

For the perfectionist swimmer, the athlete who has big goals and dreams and expectations, they want the success without the struggle or failure that the big goal demands.

But fast swimming on race day looks easy and pretty because it was hard and ugly a hundred times over in practice. Don’t fear looking silly, weak, or even stupid—push things at the pool.

At the end of the day, the foundation of Ledecky’s success isn’t extra-terrestrial (even though her times sure are).

Gemmell is adamant that there isn’t any secret sauce, or magic trick, or silver bullet.

“Just do the damn work,” is his advice.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport. Including building a bullet-proof process.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

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2 years ago

So true, so true

Coach Mike 1952
2 years ago


2 years ago

Aren’t you confusing “training to failure” with a willingness to fail? Two very different things.

Reply to  Fluidg
2 years ago

I’d say her endeavors in the 200fr are evidence of being willing to fail. She’s not the prohibitive favorite, she’s been beaten in it, yet she continues trying. Phelps did the same, picking up events that he could be beat in, and seeing how far he could go. If that doesn’t count as “willingness to fail” I don’t know what does.

Although that does imply getting anything less than 1st is failure, in which case my entire swim career was a failure lol.

Reply to  Fluidg
2 years ago

I think repeatedly training to failure involves a certain willingness to fail, don’t you? I’ve known a lot of good swimmers who let their egos get in the way in training and want to win every set. They don’t want to be “embarrassed” by failing hard and losing to the people around them. But the best competitors understand that being willing to experiment and fail at those times is the key to succeeding when it matters most.

Reply to  Fluidg
2 years ago

I think the point being made is that she sets high goals, and then is not discouraged when she doesn’t meet them immediately. Contrast that with the swimmer who sets a pace goal, tries it for a practice, and then says something to the effect of “how am I supposed to hold that in a race? there’s no way!” She embraces failure as the necessary foundation for any meaningful accomplishment.

2 years ago

I appreciate the perspective. Thanks for running this article.

2 years ago

Never seen how Ledecky looks failing at practice. But have seen her failing in competition. She takes it painfully. For instance, not breaking 15 min at NCAA.
This article is nothing else than blah-blah- blah. She came to the adult competitive sport with the potentials of at least of 14 individual world records. She felt it in herself when none of her coaches had a clue of what they are dealing with. By her worlds the 14 years old not being sure if she makes the Olympic team pictured herself in dreams only as a gold medalist. I think she just hasn’t felt that she reached the limits when failing at practice and therefore there wasn’t mental failure: not… Read more »

Reply to  Yozhik
2 years ago

This whole post is so impossible to read I have almost no idea what you’re trying to say

Becky D
Reply to  Yabo
2 years ago

I’ll translate for you: “Stating my opinions about Katie Ledecky makes me feel important.”

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Yozhik
2 years ago

I agree that 200 against Sjostom is the defining race of her career so far. No world record but greatest intensity and determination level, when it’s not her best race and she herself was unsure of the outcome. I remember Ledecky said in the post race NBC interview that she felt like puking, that it was so challenging to be racing a fellow gold medalist and world record holder.

I don’t see how tank empty during a sixth repeat qualifies as catastrophic failure. Where is Allen Iverson when you need him? IMO, Ledecky is a distance swimmer first and foremost and her repertoire causes us to lose sight of that. For a while she teased with decent results at 100.… Read more »

Reply to  Awsi Dooger
2 years ago

I don’t know, I remember watching Ledecky a couple of times in NCAA dual competition swimming a really fast 1000 Free, then jumping out of the pool and immediately swimming the 200 Free (next event), beating the 100 Free Olympic champion Manuel and everyone else in the 200 Free after spotting them the fatigue of her 1000 Free victory. Ledecky has range and speed and endurance. I haven’t seen Comerford anywhere near Ledecky in the 200 Free LCM or even top 6 in USA yet, because it’s much harder to swim.

2 years ago

Take away “Ledecky” and “swimming” and you have a phenomenal blueprint for life. Thank you Katie for showing us!

2 years ago

“Katie Ledecky running train on everybody.” —uhmmm, uh, might want to edit this, guys. Good article.

Woke Stasi
2 years ago

Another favorite and often-used “SwimSwam-ism” is “the women’s final is stacked.” Curious that it’s the women writers are the ones who typically use that expression.

Justin Thompson
Reply to  Woke Stasi
2 years ago

How about “that swim bodes well for….”

2 years ago

Hats off to her coach who lets her fail instead of encouraging her to pace herself so that she could finish the practice strong.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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