For Ledecky, it was reminiscent of her daily battles with training partner and world champion distance swimmer Andrew Gemmell as she prepared for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. That summer, at the peak of her powers, she produced the greatest individual performance by an American female athlete in Olympics history: four golds, one silver and two world records that still stand.
In Honolulu, the numbers Nesty read off his stopwatch represented some of Ledecky’s fastest practice times in years, and she kept training with Finke and Smith during the camp. By the end of the Tokyo Games, where Ledecky won two golds and two silvers — the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th medals of her Olympics career — she could claim more individual Olympic golds (six) than any female U.S. athlete in any sport.
And after a well-earned mental and physical break in the aftermath of Tokyo, as Ledecky’s thoughts turned to the next chapter of her swimming career, she knew what she needed and wanted. The top two items: a training base closer to her Bethesda home than she had been in Palo Alto, Calif., and a training group that would push her to her limits every day in practice.
One situation stood above the rest, and on Wednesday, Ledecky, 24, announced that after five years at Stanford University, she is moving to Gainesville, Fla., to train under Nesty as she looks ahead to the Paris 2024 Summer Games. Paris will be Ledecky’s fourth Olympics under a different coach, following Yuri Suguiyama (London 2012), Bruce Gemmell (Rio) and Greg Meehan (Tokyo).
“I feel really great about this decision,” Ledecky said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “I know the training will be challenging. And just entering a new environment and having some change there is an opportunity for growth.”
The move will reunite Ledecky with Finke and Smith, who delivered their own dazzling performances in Tokyo. Finke stunned the swimming world by winning gold in the men’s 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles with unheard-of closing splits, and Smith was a surprise bronze medalist in the 400 free. Caeleb Dressel, a five-time gold medalist in Tokyo, also trains at Florida but with a postgraduate group led by former Gators coach Gregg Troy.
Ledecky, who turned professional in 2018, also will take on the title of volunteer assistant coach for the Gators’ men’s and women’s swim teams under Nesty, although her coaching will take place entirely in the water as opposed to the pool deck. College programs often bestow such titles on pro swimmers to allow them to travel to meets.
“I’ve always known I benefit a lot from racing male swimmers,” Ledecky said. “I’m grateful they’re welcoming me in. It’s not just Bobby and Kieran. They have a very deep distance [freestyle] group. I think it will be a really great environment to swim against those guys who have similar goals in similar events, and hopefully we can push each other."
The move closes the books on Ledecky’s Stanford chapter, which lasted from 2017 to 2021 and produced not only this summer’s four-medal haul in Tokyo but also a bachelor’s degree in psychology and political science, a 3.97 GPA, eight individual NCAA titles, two team titles, 15 NCAA records and one world record (in the 1,500 free in 2018).
“It’s not like I’m leaving Greg,” Ledecky said of her tenure under Meehan, who was also the head women’s coach for Team USA in Tokyo. “It really just comes down to the location. Each of my coaches … has been really great for me at each point in my career, and I anticipate Coach Nesty is going to be a great coach for me leading into Paris.”
The impetus for Ledecky’s move, above all, was homesickness. Not only had she spent the past five years 3,000 miles from Bethesda, but the pandemic forced her to go a year and a half without seeing her family in person. Late this summer, ensconced at home in a period of post-Tokyo bliss, she realized she needed to be closer.
Ledecky considered a return to Bruce Gemmell and Nation’s Capital Swim Club, but the team tops out at high school age, so she wouldn’t have training partners of her own age or world-class caliber. Once she decided she had to look elsewhere, Nesty was her first call, and Gainesville was the only place she visited.
If her second priority, behind proximity to home, was a training group that could push her every day in practice, she has found that in Finke, the Olympic gold medalist in the men’s 800 and 1,500 free, and Smith, the top American at 200 and 400 meters — the four events that form the core of Ledecky’s program. Unlike at Stanford, the Gators’ men’s and women’s teams train together, but it is clear Ledecky’s training group will be the male distance and middle-distance swimmers.
At 24, an age when virtually every other elite female distance swimmer was finished as an international force, Ledecky can see the rest of the world catching up to her. In Tokyo, Australian phenom Ariarne Titmus beat her to the wall in the 400 free, coming within a whisper of Ledecky’s world record. In the 800 free, an event she had won by more than 11 seconds in Rio, she held off Titmus by less than a second and a half. In the 200, which she also had won in Rio, she failed to make the Tokyo podium, finishing fifth.
Ledecky said she expected to join her new teammates in Gainesville within the next two weeks and probably would swim her first pro meet under Nesty in November or December. Their first major international test will come in May at the 2022 world championships in Fukuoka, Japan.
“It’s a tough sport. You have to look at what your goals are and what’s going to help you achieve those goals in every aspect of your life,” Ledecky said. “One of my goals was to be closer to home, and this checks that box. And I still have really great goals in the pool. I feel this training environment is going to help me achieve those goals as well.”