by Matt Rees
Extraordinary talent sometimes reveals itself at an early age. Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls on national television at the age of two. Chopin was composing music and giving concerts at seven. Bill Gates was programming at 13.
And then there was Katie Ledecky. Today, at 19, she’s the most dominant swimmer – male or female – in the world. But in her first swim race, during the summer of 2003, that talent was still in hiding. She bellyflopped into the water at the start. She paddled more than she swam. And she repeatedly grabbed the lane line in order to gasp for air – she hadn’t mastered breathing – and wipe her runny nose. Struggles aside, she emerged from the pool all smiles. When her dad asked what she was thinking about during the race, she replied, “nothing!” with the kind of jubilation only a six-year-old can muster.
It would be one of the few times – maybe the only time – when anyone could question Ledecky’s swimming prowess. Two years later, she set a county record for eight-year-olds in the 50 meter freestyle. Today, she is so dominant that to watch almost any of her races means watching the one she is swimming and the one everyone else is swimming. At the Pan Pacific championship meet in August 2014, where she lowered two of her own world records, she won the 1,500 meter freestyle by a mind-boggling 27 seconds. At the world championships last summer, she did something that is without precedent, winning the 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 freestyle – showing a versatility that is unthinkable in swimming or other sports. (Imagine Usain Bolt winning gold medals in sprints and middle-distance races.) And at the Arena Pro Swim Series meet in January, she broke her own world record in the 800. She’s now lowered the record by seven seconds over 29 months. Pre-Ledecky, it took 21 years for the record to decline that much.
“My approach,” she says, “is that every race is a sprint – some are just longer sprints than others.” While USC coach Dave Salo has counseled other swimmers to adopt this approach, no one has had as much success with it as Ledecky. Her outright dominance over the past few years brings to mind Ilie Nastase’s quip about the 1970s tennis sensation Bjorn Borg: “we’re playing tennis and he’s playing something else.” Ledecky is, increasingly, in a category of one.
It begs the question: how has she emerged as one of the world’s most accomplished swimmers, ever?
TO UNDERSTAND LEDECKY’S ACHIEVEMENTS, it helps to understand competitive youth swimming in the Washington area. Blessed by a huge number of outdoor pools, coupled with an ambitious and affluent collection of parents, swimming has long been one of the most popular sports in the region. What began in the post-war era as a summer activity gradually morphed into a rigorous, year-round pursuit as a number of clubs popped up in the 1970s and ‘80s to service – and nurture – the growing demand for serious swimming. Nationally-ranked swimmers began to emerge. Two of the most successful were Mike Barrowman and Tom Dolan. Barrowman won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and held the world record in the 200 meter breaststroke for 13 years. Dolan won gold in the 400 meter individual medley at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and repeated as champion four years later in Sydney. And he held the world record in the event for nine years.
Barrowman, Dolan, and countless others like them who never realized world-class times, were put through years of punishing workouts. Frequently swimming in the morning before school, and always after school and on weekends, it would not be uncommon to rack up 10,000 yards in a single practice.
The time commitment required to be competitive scared off many kids (and their parents), but the ones who remained found themselves in an environment that fostered discipline, time management, an extraordinary work ethic, and high-level achievement. And over time, one Washington area team came to stand out from the rest in its ability to produce super high-achieving swimmers like Barrowman and Dolan: Curl-Burke.
Ledecky’s parents enrolled her and brother, Michael, in year-round swimming when she was six and he was nine. (Ledecky’s mother, Mary Gen, had been a middle-distance freestyler at the University of New Mexico.) They chose Curl-Burke because it had a well-regarded developmental program and its practices at American University were convenient to their Bethesda, Maryland home. Many kids flounder in winter swimming. It’s typically more demanding than summer swimming and lacks the high-energy team spirit. Meets are often dull, multi-day affairs, with swimmers spending hours waiting for events that will typically have them in the water for just a few minutes. “If I only have one day to live,” goes the joke among parents, “take me to swim meets, because they last forever.”
But Ledecky thrived. She loved the routine and the structure, and by the time she was eight she was sneaking into the workouts for 9-12 year olds. “She was very competitive,” recalls Carolyn Kaucher, who coached Ledecky from age 9 through 11. “She was not in your face about it. But all she wanted to do was beat you to the other end of the pool.”
Ledecky was a quick learner – she could immediately incorporate changes to her stroke recommended by Kaucher – and she had a remarkable devotion to the sport for someone so young. She started setting goals when she was eight – writing down “want times” she hoped to swim and posting them in her bedroom. And she was the rare youth swimmer who genuinely enjoyed going to practice and very rarely missed one. (Kaucher only remembers one or two absences over a four-year period.) When Ledecky was in fourth grade, she broke her arm playing basketball. Unable to use that arm to swim, she didn’t use it as an excuse to skip practice. Instead, she wrapped the cast in a plastic bag and practiced kicking drills.
Buttressing Ledecky’s determination was her mental discipline. Even at a young age, she stayed focused during long-distance swims (500 yards or more). While many young swimmers have a tendency to swim distance events at a range of speeds, either because they take out the first few laps too fast or because they can’t stay focused on their race strategy, Ledecky was different. Foreshadowing the strategy she still employs today, she would set a fast pace and maintain it through the entire race. Some of that consistence was a byproduct of practice. But, says Kaucher, “the mental side is hard to coach. A lot of that was innate in who she was.”
Ledecky was one of the top young swimmers in the Washington region, but even by the age of 12 she didn’t have top 10 national times for her age group and she didn’t win every race at regional championship meets. Tellingly, she didn’t view the defeats as setbacks. “They motivated me and made me want to do more,” she said. “I could see what other swimmers were doing and I saw what I could do better.”
This potent mix of optimism and determination would be a key contributor to the national and international success that was just a few years away.
ONE OF THE COMMON DENOMINATORS among most elite swimmers is a long-standing relationship with a single coach, often starting at a young age. Michael Phelps, for example, was 11 when he started working with Bob Bowman; nearly 20 years later, they’re still together.
In Ledecky’s case, she’s spent the lion’s share of her time with three coaches. Once she’d graduated from Kaucher’s group in 2007, she was coached by Yuri Suguiyama, who had only graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill three years earlier. But his youth belied his experience. A former star swimmer for Curl-Burke, he set two school records while in college. Just as important, he was a distance specialist, and so he had no hesitation about putting swimmers in those events at a young age. Some wanted nothing to do with them. Ledecky jumped at the opportunity, and impressed Suguiyama with her strength, endurance, and willpower. They were a perfect fit. As Suguiyama told me, “she was a young, hungry, super-competitive athlete and I was a young, hungry, super-competitive coach.”
Under Suguiyama, Ledecky’s performances propelled her into the elite ranks for her age group, which made her eligible for the panoply of elite youth swim meets that dot the country. But Suguiyama, in consultation with Ledecky’s parents, didn’t sign her up. “I didn’t want to rush the process,” he said. “There was more to be gained from conquering each step than skipping some steps.” In the same vein, he did not have Ledecky lifting weights or doing any other non-pool workouts (“dryland” in swimmer-speak). “Sure, we probably could have done more and gotten fancier with our workouts,” says Suguiyama, “but what would the next step have been?”
Ledecky was not, however, lollygagging in the pool. Suguiyama put her and her teammates through highly-demanding workouts six days a week, which had them swimming up to 70,000 yards (roughly equivalent to running 160 miles). But he also took time to focus on technique – something many high-level coaches skip over completely. Ledecky’s slightly-unorthodox gallop stroke – her head slightly bobs up-and-down as she shoots across the pool – is a byproduct of Suguiyama’s instruction. He saw that she had “great torque” – an ability to generate power from her hips – and wanted her to use that power more effectively. So they focused on having her mimic the stroke of Michael Phelps, and they even used a specific race – the 200 meter freestyle at the 2007 world championships – as her template. (Phelps has said, admiringly, of Ledecky, “She swims almost like a guy.”)
Starting in the fall of 2011, Suguiyama also had Ledecky maintain a daily journal, in which she would describe her performance at each practice, as well as her overall energy level. At the end of each week, she gave the journal to Suguiyama and he would write notes back about her progress. “It helped me stay connected with her and ensure that we were on the same page in her training,” he says.
FOR ANY COMPETITIVE SWIMMER, earning a spot on the Olympic team is the hoped-for payoff after years of aquatic drudgery. For Ledecky, the Olympics were only a pipe dream until one afternoon in September 2011, when she and Suguiyama had lunch to talk about short-term and long-term goals. Near the end of their meal, Suguiyama asked Ledecky to identify her “ultimate goal” for the year ahead.
Ledecky: What do you mean?
Suguiyama: What’s the best thing that could happen?
Ledecky: Make the Olympic team?
Suguiyama: Is that something you would want to do?
Suguiyama: Then say it again.
Ledecky: Make the Olympic team.
Suguiyama: Ok, that’s our goal. And that’s going to be between you and me. That’s what we’re going to shoot for. I won’t share that with anyone else.
Suguiyama says that was the only time he and Ledecky talked about qualifying for the Olympics. But he said the conversation was an inflection point: “It was something she took ownership of and something she took very seriously.”
Indeed. Within a few months, she took down Sippy Woodhead’s 33-year-old national age group record in the 13-14 500 yard freestyle – and did so in Beamon-like fashion, knocking nearly five seconds off the previous mark. While she was only a freshman in high school, her time would have placed third at the NCAA championships.
She competed in her first elite-level national meet in May 2012 and her performance was a wake-up call for the swimming cognoscenti. In the 400-meter free, she defeated Katie Hoff (the American record holder at the time) and came within a whisker of knocking off Allison Schmitt (a three-time NCAA champion in the 500-yard free). “At that point I knew she was going to have an opportunity to do something really special,” recalls Suguiyama. “She was swimming against national team girls and didn’t blink an eye.”
Six weeks later, Ledecky surprised many people – including her parents – by winning the 800 meter free at the Olympic trials, with a time five seconds faster than her personal best. Suddenly, she was enroute to the Olympics in London, despite never having competed internationally. At 15, she was the youngest member of not just the swim team, but the entire U.S. Olympic delegation.
THE OLYMPIC SWIMMERS CONVENED in Knoxville, Tennessee for a training camp (swimming is one of the few Olympic sports where men and women train together). Chemistry can be difficult, since every member of the team has at least one teammate against whom they are competing for gold. Mark Spitz, in his first Olympics experience in 1968, was hazed by his teammates, which contributed to his disappointing performance. (His seven medals came four years later.)
But there were no personality conflicts dividing the team. And there were a number of opportunities for Ledecky to build bonds with her teammates outside the pool. The girls – female swimmers seem to refer to themselves as “girls” no matter their age – held a team meeting where the veterans of previous Olympics talked about their past experiences and how to deal with the high-pressure environment. And everyone – Ledecky included – talked about one thing they took away from the Olympic Trials. Ledecky says it was an emotional meeting and “really helpful.”
The team then traveled to Vichy, France for more training together. Ledecky swam with Chloe Sutton, who was entered in the 400 free, and four men. Some of them complained to the coach, Jon Urbanchek, that Ledecky’s pace was so fast in the workouts that they wanted to be in another group. “She’s killing us,” they told him. But her humility helped win over her teammates, as did her inspired performance during the “rookie skits” that are part of a U.S. Olympic swim team tradition. Ledecky also appeared in a team video that was set to the music of Carly Rae Jepsen’s bubblegum hit “Call Me Maybe.” The video went viral and proved to be a valuable bonding experience for the swimmers.
LEDECKY’S MAIN RIVAL IN LONDON was Rebecca Adlington – the defending Olympic champion in the 800 meter freestyle, the world record holder, and the closest thing Britain had to a swimming icon. Adlington’s introduction as she walked to the starting blocks generated huge roars from the hometown audience, which included two Brits not previously known to be swimming fans: Prince William and his wife, Kate. A television commentator described the race as “the biggest moment in British swimming in who knows how long.”
Ledecky – swimming in her first international meet – never lost her cool composure. She jetted to the lead in the first lap (contrary to the strategy she’d worked out with Urbanchek), allowed one swimmer to pass her on the second lap, and regained the lead on the third lap. She stayed in the lead for the rest of the race, and even had British fans cheering her to victory. Today, her one vivid memory is coming out of her flip turn with four laps remaining. Leading by more than two seconds, she said, “it was like waking up from a dream. I had 200 meters left, and I’d done so many 200s in practice that I told myself, ‘don’t screw it up.’”
She won the race by more than four seconds, swam her best time by five seconds, and narrowly missed the world record. There was a whirlwind of activity after – the medal ceremony, media interviews, drug testing (a requirement for all medalists), and meeting up with her parents. Unsure what to do with her gold medal, she did what any sensible teenager would do: she gave it to her dad for safekeeping.
What happens the night you win an Olympic gold medal? While some athletes cut loose after years and years of regimented training, that wasn’t in the cards for Ledecky, who was, after all, only 15. So she returned to her suite in the Olympic Village, which she shared with six other swimmers. Arriving well past midnight, she had to tiptoe into the room so as not to wake her slumbering teammates. But with so much excitement from the night’s events, says Ledecky, “I barely slept.”
She appeared on the Today show the following morning, but given her low profile coming into the Olympics, she and her parents could traverse the Olympic park and attract little notice. Ledecky’s status as a newly-minted gold medalist did not win her any special treatment at the Olympic Village. She had to vacate her suite once the swimming events had wrapped up the next day. So 24 hours removed from one of the most hyped races of the London Olympics, she resembled just another tourist in London, struggling to schlep an oversized duffel bag through Victory Park. And lest the memories of the race fade, when she returned home she watched it every day for about a month “just to kind of let it sink in.”
SINCE THE 2012 OLYMPICS, Ledecky has spent most of her practice time at Georgetown Prep, a Catholic boys high school. Her coach, Bruce Gemmell, replaced Suguiyama, who was hired to be an assistant coach for the UC-Berkeley men’s team. And her team garnered a new name: Nation’s Capital Swim Club. But the transition has been nothing but smooth. At the world championship meet in the summer of 2013, Ledecky set world records in the 800 and 1500 meters freestyle. In the latter event, her time beat the previous record by a whopping six seconds.
In the spring of 2014, her practice group spent nearly three weeks at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Shortly thereafter, they traveled to Texas for what was supposed to be a routine meet. Ledecky surprised everyone – except maybe herself – by surpassing her world records in the 800 and 1,500. And at the Long Course Nationals meet in August 2014, she established a new world record in the 400 freestyle. Bob Bowman, Phelps’s coach, said at the time: “Katie reminds me very much of Michael when he was on the very top of his game.”
At the Pan Pacs meet in Australia a few weeks later, many U.S. swimmers struggled with the blustery weather. Not Ledecky. “There’s no rain underwater,” she said after lowering her world record in the 400 freestyle, “so it really doesn’t bother me.” She was the toast of the meet. She also won the 200, 800, and 1500 freestyle (lowering her world record), and was a member of the winning 4 x 200 relay. “The little black dress of American swimming,” wrote the New York Times following Ledecky’s performance, “unpretentious, regal, and ridiculously versatile.”
Last year’s world championship meet in Kazan, Russia featured even stiffer competition, but produced the same outcome. Ledecky’s performance – victories in the 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 (the latter two in world record times) – was widely hailed as one of the most impressive showings at a single international competition (beyond a certain somebody’s eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics).
WHILE LEDECKY’S ACHIEVEMENTS hardly need amplifying, there’s one way in which they are even more impressive than they seem. Most world-class swimmers have abnormally large hands or feet, which they use to push huge masses of water behind them, as well as extremely long arms. Some have extremely flexible ankles, which strengthens their kick. And many have enormous lung capacity, which enables them to maximize the underwater portion of swimming that has become de rigeur among the world’s best swimmers.
Ledecky does not have any of these physical attributes. When the U.S. Olympic Committee put her through their routine battery of tests (known as the “Elite Athlete Health Profile”), looking at the full range of physical and physiological characteristics, the results, says Gemmell, were “remarkably unremarkable.” He points out that while she’s tall (5’11”) by most standards, she’s shorter than many of her elite competitors. When he started coaching her, he observed that she didn’t have a strong pull, had a subpar kick, and didn’t even have a great feel for the water. More recently, he’s said that, “Some swimmers are good athletes; some are bad. She’s not on the bottom of the list. But there’s no real physical gift.” Where she can improve in the pool? “Her turns are still not particularly good,” he told reporters after her world-record swim in the 800 last summer. On the eve of her Austin performance, he told me she still needs to “manage her legs” better in races of different distances.
All of which begs the question how she’s achieved world-class status. Start with her work ethic. “She brings her lunch bucket every day,” says Gemmell. “She doesn’t go easy in any practices or any sets. Ever.” Indeed, says Gemmell, she often pushes herself to a point that’s not sustainable.
“Katie fails in the practice environment more than anyone in the group: sometimes she fails spectacularly.” But he says it’s all a matter of figuring out what can be sustained, and in Ledecky’s case, it’s much more than virtually any other swimmer. Gemmell recalls one particular set of 30 100s (long course) on 1:30, alternating fast and easy. She swam the “fast” ones in 59 seconds or faster (and did so in Colorado Springs, at an altitude of 6,000 feet). “She’s like an American Ninja warrior inside of a distance swimmer,” says Summer Sanders, a gold medalist at the ’92 Olympics.
Ledecky also benefits from having elite training partners, like Andrew Gemmell (the coach’s son), who placed ninth in the 1500 meter freestyle at the 2012 Olympics, and Matthew Hirschberger, one of the top high school swimmers in the country. She’s also fortunate to be coached by Gemmell, a one-time engineer (and swimmer at the University of Michigan), who has extensive experience with distance races. Another key contributor to her success is her family. Her parents have never pressured her, and her older brother, Michael, a senior at Harvard, calls himself her #1 fan.
Nutrition? Nothing special: toast with peanut butter before practice; yogurt and chocolate milk after, with an occasional stop at Ize’s deli in Bethesda for “Katie’s Gold Medal Omelet” – tomato, cheese, and bacon. Dinner is often some combination of grilled chicken, steak, and pasta. Supplements? Doesn’t take ’em.
TO BETTER UNDERSTAND LEDECKY’S SUCCESS, consider something said by Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the four-minute mile barrier: “It’s the brain – not the heart or lungs – that is the critical organ.”
Ledecky – like all world-class swimmers – devotes an incomprehensible amount of time to mastering her craft. She’s in the pool nine times per week, for two hours at a time, and also puts in three one-hour dryland sessions. But it’s not simply that “practice makes perfect.” To be more precise, “deliberate practice” makes perfect as Geoff Colvin points out in his best-selling 2008 book, Talent is Overrated, which argues against the idea that individuals are born with innate qualities.
Deliberate practice poses an extra challenge for swimmers, who ply their craft in a setting where they have little time for communication and the only object they can look at is a pace clock and a black line at the bottom of the pool. Few individuals have the mental discipline and stamina it takes to achieve world-class performance. Ledecky is one of them. And while she no doubt benefits from being able to talk shop occasionally with swimming legend Janet Evans and Washington Wizards majority team owner Ted Leonsis (a family friend), it’s also clear that those elusive qualities – drive and determination – are hardwired into her DNA and push her to places most swimmers will never go.
“Somewhere in the mental makeup, there is something the distance swimmers have that the others don’t have,” Gemmell told the Washington Post last year. “Something that makes them embrace the discipline required. Katie embraced it. She likes the repetition – the borderline monotony – of distance.” Ledecky told me that these traits are something she’s always had.
“I’ve never been pushed by anyone into the sport. I was never pushed to go to certain meets or practices. I made all of my decisions and I set all of my goals. From a young age, I had that mentality and had that ability to push myself and stay with it. I always wanted to go to practice. It’s just something I enjoyed and I stuck with it.”
Ledecky’s mental focus carries over to her persona. She’s mature beyond her years, and extremely humble, but doesn’t lack confidence. When Gemmell sat down with her in advance of last summer’s world championship meet, he mapped out a few different scenarios with her – one of which was that she might not make the finals of the 200 free, since her semifinal race was scheduled to begin about 20 minutes after she was swimming the 1,500. She shot him a dismissive look and simply said, “That won’t happen.” And she was right – thanks to a miraculous surge in the final 50 that propelled her from seventh to third. (And yes, in that 1,500 swim just prior to the 200 semi, she had just broken the world record.)
Ledecky has also cited her religious faith as contributing to her achievements. “First and foremost, my faith has really been my strength over these past 14 years,” she told the Catholic Standard, which noted that she says a prayer before every race. She’s also spoken of her admiration for Pope Francis.
Ledecky graduated last year from the all-girls Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, where she helped plan school liturgies and was a co-leader of the school’s campus ministry program (which set up and served dinner once a month at a facility catering to the homeless and needy). When Stone Ridge held a viewing party to watch a live-stream of Ledecky’s Olympic swim, about 85 percent of the students showed up, and a busload of them gave her a hero’s welcome at the airport upon her return from London. In November 2014, she spoke at a fundraising dinner for the school and teared up when talking about how the school had contributed to her development as a swimmer and as a person. And even after winning an Olympic gold, and setting multiple world records, she continued to swim for the Stone Ridge team. For her teammates, it was akin to having Adele in their choir class.
While Ledecky doesn’t have much downtime, over the past few years she’s done volunteer work with a variety of groups, including Bikes for the World. She will sometime relax by watching the CBS show “Blue Bloods,” which chronicles an extended family of (Catholic) New York police officers. She’s also interested in politics (broadcaster favorites are CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and the Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace), but will make time for decidedly un-serious characters, from the iconic wise-guy, Ferris Bueller, to the neurotic mischief-maker, Larry David (of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). It’s no stretch to imagine David, were he ever to meet Ledecky, to unfurl one of his signature lines and declare her swimming to be “pretty . . . pretty . . . pretty . . . pretty good.”
Yes, pretty good. But with any world-class talent, there’s frequently an X factor – something that simply can’t be explained. The jazz legend Wynton Marsalis has recounted a conversation he once had with another musical icon, Miles Davis. Marsalis asked, “Man, how you get the sound you get?” Davis replied, “Man, nobody know about sound. Sound just is.”
Something similar can be said of Ledecky. For all of her hard work, determination, and mental strength, when it comes to her performance in the pool, it can’t entirely be explained. It just is.
SO HOW GOOD can Ledecky be? One answer will come at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She will be the prohibitive favorite to win the 400 and 800 (the 1,500 is not an Olympic event for women), and she will be a strong contender in the 200 (alas, she’ll face strong competition to simply make the U.S. team). She will likely be on the 800 freestyle relay (the top 6 finishers at Olympic Trials qualify) and, possibly, on the 400 freestyle relay.
Ledecky, who is slated to enroll at Stanford in the fall, is the best female swimmer the world has seen since Janet Evans. And she’s in the stratosphere of other athletes who currently dominate their sport, from Serena Williams to Steph Curry. “She’s paving the way, showing what the human body is capable of and what the future of swimming could look like,” says distance swimmer Lauren Boyle of New Zealand.
It’s tempting to say that Ledecky is the greatest freestyler of all time, but she can’t (yet) lay claim to the extraordinary achievement of one Australian female swimmer who has been largely forgotten. In 1971, Shane Gould held the world record in the 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1,500, as well as the 200 IM. Can Ledecky match that superhuman feat – or even surpass it? While it won’t happen this year, anything is possible after that. Because if we’ve learned anything about Ledecky over the past few years, it’s that she’s capable of swimming faster, in a range of distances, than anyone thought possible.
Matt Rees is the president of Geonomica, a speechwriting firm in McLean, Virginia. He is also a former White House speechwriter and Wall Street Journal editorial page writer. He hopes to one day swim the 50 free faster than he did when he was 14.