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Katie Ledecky uses Olympic platform to launch math, science program for kids

Katie Ledecky answers questions during an event at the National Press Club in March 2018. The five-time Olympic champion spoke Wednesday at CES, one of the world’s largest technology conventions. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post) (Toni Sandys)

LAS VEGAS — Her sport is all numbers and physics, and Katie Ledecky has always enjoyed breaking down her swims, using video and technology to help engineer the fastest race possible. In and out of the pool, the five-time Olympic champion has long immersed herself in science, technology, engineering and math, and in the months leading to the Summer Olympics, she’s hoping to use her platform to get young people excited about the subjects as well.

With fewer than 200 days to go until the Tokyo Games, Ledecky took a brief break from training to attend CES, one of the world’s largest technology conferences, where she announced a new online program aimed at middle school students, encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM fields. She partnered with Panasonic to launch the “Dive into STEM Education” initiative, which will debut in five cities this year, including Washington, where the 22-year old Ledecky was born.

“I understand that I have a platform now going into hopefully my third Olympic Games,” she said in an interview at CES. “Education has always been front and center in my life.”

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Making her first visit to Las Vegas, Ledecky spoke briefly on a Panasonic stage Wednesday morning, where she explained that she has many family members who have been involved in medical and science fields. She enrolled at Stanford in 2016 and is majoring in psychology.

“Education has always been a really critical and central aspect of my life” said Ledecky, wearing a black leather jacket with an Olympic pin. “I think a lot of people think that swimming comes first, but for me, the two have always gone hand in hand.”

“So if I can get that message out there,” she explained later, “and hopefully inspire young kids to have those same priorities in their lives, I think it’s an important message that doesn’t get talked about enough.”

With her training heating up, Ledecky still managed to sneak in a morning swim before Wednesday’s event. She’s preparing for the U.S. Olympic trials in June and is expected to compete for as many as six gold medals in Tokyo this summer.

When she’s targeting fast times and chasing records, Ledecky is consumed with statistics, video analysis and studying ways to move faster through the water. There’s a natural application she sees between her sport and the STEM subjects she learned in school.

“We’re just trying to find every little way to improve and we do use technology to do that,” Ledecky said. “There are a lot of different applications and synergies between STEM and swimming.

Ledecky turned professional in March 2018 and has started to build a portfolio of corporate sponsors. In teaming with Panasonic, she’s sought a relationship that helps her pursue a larger mission, and she hopes to bring her own flare to the program, finding ways to engage students in math and science by connecting it to swimming. The digital program will launch initially in five markets: Washington; Newark; Denver; Reno, Nev.; and the San Francisco Bay area.

Ledecky is taking a break from her full-time studies while she focuses on Olympic preparation but has still been working in a Stanford laboratory with Ph.D. students. She says she’s not yet sure how she might someday use her psychology degree but is considering something in the education field because she enjoys working with children.

She thinks one of the most effective ways to engage more women in STEM is to reach them when they’re young, which is why the program will focus on middle school students. She said she always had strong math and science teachers — first at Little Flower School and then at Stone Ridge, both in Bethesda — that sparked her interest in STEM fields.

“That’s where you see the opportunity to really get kids excited about STEM in the future,” she said. “You want to start from a young age, getting them excited about potential careers and so that hopefully they can kind of line up and see what kind of track they might want to take in college or pursue a different career.

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