Katie Ledecky has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Swimming World, SwimSwam and Bethesda Magazine, among other publications, but the five-time Olympic gold medalist says being featured on the front of the latest issue of National Geographic is especially cool. It’s also historic, though that’s nothing new for the 21-year-old from Bethesda.

“It was such an honor to be asked, and it was a lot of a fun doing the shoot here at the Stanford pool,” Ledecky, who is believed to be the first Olympian featured on the cover of the 130-year-old periodical, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “I know that they don’t really have an athletics focus, so that made it extra special. I’ve read National Geographic and have had a subscription since I was a kid, so it was a huge honor.”

The accompanying cover story, by USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, details how today’s elite athletes, including Ledecky, sprinter Usain Bolt and weightlifter CJ Cummings, are utilizing science to push the boundaries of human athletic performance. (The story also features portrait photographs of Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer and outfielder Michael A. Taylor, though neither player was interviewed for the piece. “I was happy to see there were some familiar faces from D.C.,” Ledecky said.) 

Brennan describes how Ledecky, who in March announced that she would forgo her final two years of college eligibility at Stanford to begin a professional swimming career, “eagerly digests readouts about her nutrition and blood work, and studies videos of her workouts and races, looking for ways to improve her arm and hand movements.” That attention to detail, combined with a good old-fashioned work ethic that few others possess, has helped Ledecky continue to put even more distance between herself and her next-closest competitors in the pool.

“There are little ways that science helps us improve as athletes today, and some of the really great ones are able to tap into that and take advantage of those things,” said Ledecky, who shaved five seconds off her own record in the 1,500-meter freestyle at a TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Indianapolis last month. “That’s something I’m very interested in because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I think some people feel like my mental game is kind of what differentiates me from some other athletes, some other swimmers.”

One aspect of Ledecky’s mental game is her goal-setting routine. It’s an approach that has been enhanced by her time at Stanford, where she will continue to train and work toward completing her degree in psychology despite no longer competing for the Cardinal.

“I have really seen the power of goal-setting and of putting some targets out there and trying to hit those marks,” said Ledecky, who led Stanford to back-to-back national championships and broke NCAA records 15 times over the last two years. “Sometimes it’s scary to me how spot on I get to those marks, and it just kind of makes me think that having a goal out there like that really does motivate me. I think that’s something that can be applicable to a number of different fields. That’s something I love about my psych classes here at Stanford. I’m just always learning something about everyday life, or just about how people function, why people make certain decisions and how people are motivated.”

The transition to the pro ranks has been a smooth one thus far for Ledecky, who said it’s enabled her to refocus her mind and dial into her training with an eye toward the Tokyo Games in two years.

“I kind of have a road map, and I found I was kind of already a little ahead of my road map early on this season and made some adjustments to that,” she said. “I’m excited for the next month-and-a-half of racing to finish out this season, and then continuing to work through 2018, ’19, ’20, and trying to meet some big goals for 2020.”

While Ledecky was busy with classes, finals, training and meets, she said she managed to watch a fair amount of her hometown Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup run over the last two months. Ledecky’s uncle, Jon Ledecky, was part of the Ted Leonsis-led group that purchased the Capitals from Abe Pollin in 1999, and she would often attend games as a kid.

“I always tried to make time to turn the game on while I was eating dinner, or to procrastinate while doing some of my homework,” Ledecky said. “Being on the West Coast it was a little easier. It was just so much fun to watch and see. I’ve been a lifelong fan. We’re pretty good family friends with the Leonsis family, so just to know how much work they put in and how much passion they have for the Caps and the D.C. community, I think it’s such a positive, great thing for the city.”

Ledecky complimented Alex Ovechkin on his swimming technique after the Capitals’ captain and several teammates took a dip in a fountain at the Georgetown waterfront while parading the Stanley Cup around D.C. two days after winning the title. While fountain hopping is a Stanford tradition, Ledecky has yet to partake.

“I save my swimming for the pool,” she said.

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