Ledecky, who turned 21 earlier this month, had settled on her decision early in the school year but didn’t make it public until a speaking appearance Monday afternoon at the National Press Club in Washington. The move means Ledecky can take on lucrative endorsement deals and start competing for money.
It also means she can no longer swim for Stanford, bringing to close a brilliant but brief college career. In addition to helping the Cardinal win two national championships, Ledecky won eight NCAA titles, including three earlier this month.
She will still take classes at Stanford and continue training with her college teammates, but Ledecky can now focus her energy full-time on the sport’s biggest competitions, which include the world championships next summer in South Korea and the Tokyo Games.
“I feel like having two years in this stage will prepare me in the best way for 2020,” said Ledecky, who grew up in Bethesda.
Greg Meehan, her Stanford coach, says it’s the perfect time for Ledecky to make the leap. The midpoint of the Olympic cycle, he says, gives Ledecky ample time to adjust to life as a pro athlete and take advantage of opportunities leading into Tokyo, where she will surely be one of the biggest American stars.
“I think it takes a little bit of time to learn how to be a professional athlete, and I don’t think the Olympic year is the time to do that,” Meehan said in a phone interview. “She can make the transition now, use the 2018-19 year as a transitional year and figure out how to operate day-to-day and week-to-week. Then we’ll get to summer of ’19 through summer of 2020 and things will be in place and she can just do what she needs to do.”
While many swimmers might not embark on professional careers until they have exhausted their college eligibility, the elite few can make the jump earlier, a move that can be financially life-changing and allow them to focus their training on the Olympic cycle. While Michael Phelps briefly trained at the University of Michigan, he was already a professional and never swam collegiately. Missy Franklin didn’t turn pro until the end of her sophomore year at Cal, forgoing millions of dollars in endorsement money and sponsorship deals.
Many around the pool deck speculated that Ledecky was similarly passing up lucrative deals by not turning pro before the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I don’t have any regrets at all,” Ledecky said. “I think these two years have provided me with so much, just personally and for my swimming. I think being in that environment, being a part of a team and making these friends and sharing these times has been really special for me.”
In two years at Stanford, she broke American records 11 times and NCAA records 15 times. Even at the biggest competitions, she lapped the field. At this month’s NCAA championships in Columbus, Ohio, for example, she won the 1,650-yard freestyle by 28 full seconds.
“For me, and I think for our program,” Meehan said, “her impact goes well beyond the points and the performances. . . . It just goes way beyond anything that you can really calculate.”
He saw her grow in and out of the pool, too. In the 500 free at the NCAA championships, Ledecky routed the field, winning by eight seconds. She’d nearly caught her breath and dried off by the time her teammate Katie Drabot touched the wall in second.
“She celebrated her teammate getting second more than she celebrated herself getting first,” Meehan said. “That just really sums her up in a lot of ways to me. That stood out as one of my favorite moments. It was awesome. It’s just who she is — a great person, a great teammate and friend who really enjoyed what this year brought.”
Ledecky played coy at the conclusion of the NCAA championships, evading the question about her future. “I have a final exam on Monday,” she told reporters. “That’s about as far into the future I’m looking.”
But she knew it was her final meet as a college swimmer. Her next time in a competitive pool, she will likely have several companies lining up to partner with her.
With Ledecky’s career now pointed toward the Tokyo Olympics, Meehan said he’ll adjust her training schedule accordingly. Ledecky will do more work in the long-course pool. She won’t be limited by NCAA restrictions that dictate how much time she spends in the water or working with coaches. And though she will still mostly train with her Cardinal teammates, she will have an easier travel and competition schedule, focusing on the meets that matter most.
In 2020, Ledecky will have a shot at topping her historic performance from the Rio Games in 2016, when she won four gold medals and a silver. She will enter her third Summer Games already with six Olympic medals — five of them gold — under her belt, and Ledecky will again be the likely favorite in most of the freestyle distances — the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 — with a chance to swim in a couple of relays, too.
“It’s mostly just about looking ahead to the future and wanting to set myself up as best as I can for 2020,” Ledecky said of her career decision.