She has no speaking role in the ceremony; she is just one of some 1,450 graduates in Stanford’s Class of 2021. What could she say about all that has happened these past few years?
In 2016, she arrived in Palo Alto, Calif., as a 19-year-old, having taken a gap year after graduating from Stone Ridge in Bethesda to train for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She had never lived alone, didn’t cook for herself and didn’t know how to ride a bike. She had never paid a bill or drawn a paycheck. As Ledecky says, “Just thinking about being on the pool deck in Rio, that feels like a long time ago.”
Since then, she has compiled one of the most remarkable collegiate swimming careers before turning pro and has shuffled between living an ordinary campus life and a surreal pseudo-celebrity existence. She studied Greek art one semester, and she gave a swimming lesson to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.
All of it led her here: a virtual graduation ceremony in a Nebraska hotel room, followed in short order by a coronation in a swimming pool.
“I have moments where I have to pinch myself,” said Ledecky, 24. “There have been times on campus and it feels a little surreal that I go to school here, or I tell myself, ‘I’ve been to the Olympics — what?’ Even that hasn’t completely sunk in yet, you know?”
Already the owner of five Olympic gold medals, 15 world titles and three world records, Ledecky is on the cusp of a third Summer Games, one that can only further solidify her as one of the sport’s all-time greats. On Monday, she will race the 400-meter freestyle, the first of four events on her ambitious trials program. If all goes as planned, Ledecky will qualify to compete in at least five events at the Tokyo Olympics: the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races, plus the 4x200 relay. There’s an outside chance she’ll also get tapped for the 4x100 relay team, which would potentially allow her to top her five-medal haul from the Rio Games.
“When we look back 30 or 40 years from now at what Katie is doing, I think we’ll be able to appreciate it a lot more,” says Rowdy Gaines, an NBC analyst and a three-time Olympic champion. “She’s just gotten everybody used to it. She’s gotten us used to these times that we never thought were even possible.”
Swimming is now both a passion and job for Ledecky, but the past five years have reinforced that it’s not everything. She will return to her sport’s biggest stage with the same lofty expectations — chasing times, speeds and records that no other female swimmer has known — but with a perspective, understanding and maturity forged by her studies at Stanford, her time living alone on the West Coast and a pandemic that delayed an Olympics and deferred her goals.
Her original plan was to compete in Tokyo and then spend the next 12 to 18 months wrapping up her studies. But when the Olympics were postponed a full year, she re-enrolled in classes. As covid-19 upended life across the globe, Ledecky even took a course called “Global Change and Emerging Infectious Disease.” She finished her schooling more than a year earlier than planned, completing all the coursework for her undergraduate degree in psychology, making the next few days in Omaha cause for celebration on multiple fronts.
Ledecky has always been goal-oriented. Growing up in Bethesda, she set benchmarks and usually hit them. When she enrolled at Stanford, flipping through a course catalogue, a psychology class called “How Beliefs Create Reality” caught her eye.
“It was kind of like, this is my life: setting goals, trying to make them happen,” she recalled.
The course focused on how mind-set can affect results and included just 16 students. Ledecky, who weeks earlier had been a nightly fixture on televisions across the country, was paired for a brief interview and introduction with another student, who apparently hadn’t watched the Olympics.
“They asked each other questions,” recalled Alia Crum, who teaches the course, “and then he was like, ‘This is Katie. She likes to swim. This summer she met all of her goals.’
“Like, that’s what Katie chose to tell him.”
The course would open up Ledecky’s mind to possibilities and force her to consider self-imposed limitations. She eventually shared with the class that a few years before the Rio Olympics, she had scribbled the numbers “565” on a buoy that she used in training. The numbers represented the biggest of her Olympic goals: 3:56 in 400 and 8:05 in the 800 — and she looked at that buoy every time she was in the pool. Only Ledecky and her coach at the time, Bruce Gemmell, knew what they meant.
In Rio de Janeiro, Ledecky swam a 3:56.46 in the 400 and 8:04.79 in the 800 — two world records that still stand.
“It was this beautiful example of creating your own reality,” Crum said. “What I find interesting is thinking, what if she targeted even faster times?”
Ledecky has spent the past 4½ years thinking about that, and while she won’t reveal any specific goals for Omaha or Tokyo, she feels she’s still capable of times that others can’t touch.
“It was thought-provoking, for sure,” she said of the 2016 classroom exercise. “Obviously, you can’t just throw out crazy numbers and have that become a reality. But I think there’s something to be said for the fact that I looked at those numbers every day.”
Psychology intrigued her, but she still took a wide range of classes, including a popular course called “Sleep and Dreams.”
“I was very aware of her, and I often looked at her to see if she was alert and paying attention,” longtime Stanford professor William Dement, widely considered the founder of sleep medicine, said in a 2020 interview. “Sometimes students are drifting off, but she was a good student.”
Ledecky studied how sleep relates to performance and has tracked her own with the aid of USA Swimming’s specialists and a sensor under her pillow. She also stayed in touch with Dement, who died last June at age 91.
She’s plenty aware of the importance rest will play in Tokyo, where event finals will take place in the mornings, a full 14 hours ahead of California’s West Coast time zone. So Ledecky recently contacted Dement’s longtime colleague, Rafael Pelayo. She shared her schedule and the anticipated Tokyo conditions, and Pelayo and some colleagues put together a sleep plan for her to consider.
“I feel like almost every class I’ve taken here has sparked something,” she said.
Even when she wasn’t receiving class credit for it, Ledecky worked in Stanford’s Mind & Body Lab, led by Crum, her adviser. She helped doctoral students with their research, which often related to nutrition, exercise or health education. Crum said the swimmer showed an “innate curiosity” from her first day and rarely brought up her athletic pursuits.
“Obviously, she’s fully devoted to her swimming right now, as she should be,” Crum said in an interview from her Stanford office, “but I got the sense that swimming isn’t always going to be everything. She’s had this opportunity to learn about herself, to see what her capacity is, to see what her influence is and to really just learn and hopefully start to understand what kind of impact she can have after athletics are done.”
Student life, sort of
After the Rio buzz quieted, Ledecky felt she was able to blend in on campus. She lived in the dorms with roommates her first two years and biked around campus. In many ways her college experience was typical. She even took advantage of the marching band’s open-door policy and played the school fight song on alto sax at a football game.
Her accomplishments still garnered attention and created unique opportunities. She served as honorary game day captain for Stanford’s football and men’s basketball teams. She spent her free time in grade-school classrooms or children’s hospitals and encountered a wide range of personalities that have nothing to do with swimming.
Ledecky is friendly with Anne E. Wojcicki, founder of 23andMe, and Susan Wojcicki, chief executive of YouTube. She has lunched with Hiroshi Mikitani, chief executive of Rakuten, and has rubbed shoulders on her travels with famous comedians and actors, such as Leslie Jones and Dave Chappelle. She even gave Zuckerberg a swimming lesson in his backyard pool.
The Facebook chief was dabbling in triathlons and felt his swim stroke needed work. So Ledecky and her Stanford coach, Greg Meehan, visited Zuckerberg at his Palo Alto home.
“He emailed me afterward and was like, ‘Maybe we can do this again when I’m a little better,’ ” Ledecky recalled with a laugh.
The lessons since the 2016 Games have been big and small and largely unpredictable. She had to grapple with pandemic frustrations during which her Olympic dreams were in limbo and finding a swimming pool was a daily chore. For a stretch last spring, she and teammate Simone Manuel were training in someone’s backyard pool. She went a full year between competitions and spent plenty of time alone in her Palo Alto apartment. She was unable to see her family for 14 months and relied on video chats to keep up with relatives and friends.
“Just looking at this quad, there’s so many ups and downs and things to learn from,” she said. “Most of them have been in the last year.”
Another starting block
Ledecky swam for Stanford for two years, breaking NCAA records 15 times, winning eight NCAA titles and helping the Cardinal claim two team championships. She gave up her amateur status in March 2018, signing with an agent and partnering with several sponsors. Her push to Tokyo is significantly more lucrative than the run-up to Rio, but it’s also filled with more expectations, demands and even questions.
Ledecky fell ill at the 2019 world championships, where she completed just three events. Because of the pandemic, she hasn’t had a chance to showcase her speed on an international stage since July 2018.
While her times this season have been impressive, the Olympic trials will offer the biggest clue as to what might be in store in Tokyo. Can she match her medal haul from Rio? Can she fend off a young crop of challengers in the 200? Can she approach her world record times in the 400, 800 and 1,500?
In most long-course events, she’s nearly five years removed from her fastest times, but Ledecky feels her training is better than ever.
“Maybe the first year or two after Rio, I was caught up in looking backward. Like, ‘Oh, that time wasn’t as fast as Rio,’ ” she says. “But most of the time I’m not as fast as Rio because Rio was pretty incredible. I think I got caught up in that a little bit.
“But I feel like I really have been more forward-looking,” she continued. “If anything, it’s like I have so many good swims in me right now [but] just haven’t been really able to put it out there.”
For now, she doesn’t know what’s in store beyond these Olympics. “I’ll start thinking about after Tokyo after Tokyo,” she says. More schooling is possible. She enjoys working with children and has already dabbled in youth education initiatives. Those around her can also see her going into public speaking, law or even politics.
She spent the first 19 years of her life in the Washington area but has taken to California life and says she isn’t certain where she will train and settle down post-Tokyo.
“I love it out here. I really love this environment, love the training environment, love the weather, love the people,” she said recently. “The whole community and friends that I’ve made out here. But at the same time, I still have that on the East Coast, too.”
But first there’s that cap and gown, then the pool in Omaha, with a bigger stage waiting in Tokyo. Katie Ledecky — older, wiser, maybe even faster — is about to graduate and ready to show the world what’s next.