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Katie Ledecky signs up for new professional swimming league

Katie Ledecky answers questions during a luncheon at the National Press Club. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post) (Toni Sandys)
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As the 2020 Tokyo Games inch closer, Katie Ledecky’s path to her third Olympics is becoming clearer. As the sport grows, so do the opportunities, and Ledecky plans to compete as a charter member of a new professional swimming league that will launch later this year.

The International Swimming League formally announced plans Tuesday for its inaugural season. The team-based league will stage a series of competitions in the United States and Europe as organizers aim to grow the sport and offer increased prize money for the world’s top swimmers. It plans to field four Europe- and four U.S.-based teams, including one in Washington called the D.C. Trident. Ledecky said the new league “represents a new era for professional swimming.”

“Especially for competitive women like me,” she said. “Jumping in the pool for the ISL really means a new era for women since it’s one of the first leagues to emphasize gender equality as one of its values."

Ledecky, 22, along with fellow Americans Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy, have been tabbed as “ambassadors” and are expected to both compete and help promote the start-up outfit. Now that she no longer swims collegiately, Ledecky can seek out races that provide prize money and help prepare her for major international competitions, such as the Olympics.

In recent years, those opportunities have been relatively scarce. Ledecky is scheduled to compete this week in a TYR Pro Series meet in Richmond, her first formal racing since January.

Although it’s not clear how often Ledecky might race in the ISL, it should give her a bit more work as she prepares for Tokyo. If the league manages a second season, it could also keep her busier during the fall and winter months.

Last year Ledecky was a sophomore competing for the Stanford team who swam in 11 meets during that stretch. She turned pro after the season, and this year she has spent a lot more time training than competing. She entered a TYR Pro Series event in January, but that has been her only competition since last year.

“I think I like training almost more than I like racing sometimes — when I just really have some good practices that I’m able to string together,” Ledecky said. “One really good practice can turn into a couple of good practices, which turns into a great week, which turns into a great month of training. I really love building up some really good training and feeling like I’m getting better. That’s what gets me excited.”

The five-time Olympic champion continued training along her former Stanford teammates and said she occasionally got the itch to race alongside them. But her focus has been preparing for this summer’s world championships in South Korea.

Greg Meehan, her coach, said her race schedule entering the Tokyo Games won’t differ significantly from her workload that preceded the 2016 Rio Games. That predated her college swimming career and also was focused heavily on training. He said Ledecky will swim more TYR Pro Series events next month in Bloomington, Ind., and then probably a lower-profile race in California before worlds.

“She really enjoys training,” he said. “That’s in part why she’s so great. She can embrace the grind of a daily, weekly, monthly training cycle. You can see she’ll get the sparkle in her eye when she’s having a great set in training, and she knows that she’s getting better.”

The long layoff between races helps Ledecky’s body recover and minimizes travel, allowing for a steady training routine, Meehan said. It also allows the swimmer to lock in on longer-term goals. For now, that means prepping for the world championships.

This week in Richmond, she is scheduled to compete in three of her marquee distances: the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle events. She is also signed up for the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races and the 200 and 400 individual medleys.

Because she is skipping the grueling 1,500 in Richmond, those events are intended to keep her workload up, preparing Ledecky for the grind that awaits her in South Korea.

“The goal is to peak at worlds,” she said, “to have my fastest times of the season at worlds. I feel like I’ve put in a lot of good training, improved on where I was in January and December.”

Tuesday’s news means her competitive schedule will stretch beyond the world championships, the summer’s premier event. The ISL will open its season with events on Oct. 4 and 5, and the teams will compete most every weekend through Nov. 24.

The finals are scheduled for Dec. 20 and 21 in Las Vegas. A more detailed schedule will be announced later, though at least one event likely will be staged in the D.C. area. Ledecky said she is hopeful the league will give young athletes something to aspire to and will keep the sport in the public spotlight more than every four years.

“Growing up, I loved going to swim meets and watching Olympians and all these people I looked up to as a young swimmer,” she said.

The ISL has been months in the making and had to clear early hurdles posed by FINA, filing a federal antitrust lawsuit last year against the sport’s international governing body. Both organizations have opted to create high-profile events, with most of the world’s top swimmers on board in some fashion.

FINA announced its own series of elite invitation-only meets this week with stops in Guangzou, China, Budapest and Indianapolis in April and May. The organization’s Champions Swim Series features total prize money of $3.9 million and will include many international stars. While Ledecky is not in the field this year, American swimmers such as Anthony Ervin, Dana Vollmer, Leah Smith and Lilly King are scheduled to compete.

Founded by Ukrainian financier Konstantin Grigorishin, the ISL will feature 12 men and 12 women per team, and each weekend they will compete for points in a series of races. The D.C. Trident will be led by General Manager Kaitlin Sandeno, a four-time Olympic medalist. The Los Angeles Current will be led by Olympic champion Lenny Krayzelburg, the San Francisco-based Cali Condors by Jason Lezak, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, and the New York Breakers by Tina Andrew, the mother and manager of five-time world champion Michael Andrew.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing what this new league, this new series of racing, will do for our sport,” Ledecky said, “especially in the lead-up and the follow-up to 2020 in Tokyo.”