Five years removed from dominating the Olympic pool in Rio de Janeiro, Katie Ledecky is a different swimmer. She’s older and stronger, and she has used the time to fine-tune her mechanics, train her body, sculpt her physique and reconsider what’s possible.
She enters the Tokyo Games with enormous expectations, based on not just her accomplishments but all of the possibilities.
“Katie definitely has the potential to be better,” said Russell Mark, the high performance manager for USA Swimming. “She is a more thoughtful, more aware athlete right now, you know, in her early 20s and just more aware of her body, more aware technically, more aware in the weight room.”
Chasing five Olympic medals — possibly even six — over eight days, Ledecky will try to show how much faster she is, and the rest of the swimming world, left gurgling water in her wake, will try to figure out how she does it.
Ledecky will tackle a range of distances no one else in Tokyo would dare attempt. No other swimmer at these Games will swim the 200 meters and also the 1,500, just as no track runner would consider sprinting a short distance and also grinding out a mile.
Ledecky, 24, is a freestyle specialist, and she has spent most of her life trying to perfect that stroke. It has been good enough to earn her four gold medals from the 2016 Olympics, another from the 2012 London Games when she was 15 years old, and 15 world titles.
“She’s without a doubt the greatest female swimmer in history,” said NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic champion. “There’s no way you can compare anybody else in history to her for what she’s been able to accomplish for so long.”
While Ledecky’s best times are all three to five years old, her coaches think she has improved in the five years since she was last on an Olympic stage.
“I think my stroke changes. It’s a little bit every year as I get stronger,” she said. “ … And maybe to the naked eye sometimes it doesn’t look that way. Or maybe it looks different in some ways. But, you know, the main fundamentals are still there.”
How exactly Ledecky does it — the irreplicable recipe to her sustained success — amounts to a master class in swim mechanics, from the start of her race to that final stretch for the wall.
Distance racers typically don’t put as much emphasis on the starting blocks as sprinters do. That’s a big reason Ledecky often is able to race out to leads before she even has popped out of the water and taken her first stroke in longer events.
As she awaits the start of a race, she’s focused on using a burst of power off the blocks. She wants to hit the water at the right angle for a streamlined entry.
“The deeper you go, the less forward speed you have,” said Greg Meehan, who has coached Ledecky since 2016. “And so it’s trying to find that balance where you can enter cleanly but then still figure out how to transition that into forward speed.”
In many ways, she treats the start of a distance event the same as a sprint. At this year’s U.S. Olympic swimming trials, her reaction time — from the sound of the start to the first movement off the blocks — in the 200 (0.66 seconds) was just a hair faster than her reaction time in the 1,500 (0.70).
While many distance swimmers aim to pop out early to begin their freestyle stroke, Ledecky is often building her initial lead below the surface, remaining underwater for 9-10 meters while carrying the momentum of her dive into an aggressive underwater dolphin kick.
“She blasts it out so quickly and takes everyone else out of their race plan,” Gaines said. “She’s like the Tasmanian Devil. It’s demoralizing in a lot of ways for everyone else in the pool.”
Much of the preparation is done in the weight room, where Ledecky does box jumps and squats to build power.
“There’s an explosive element that not all distance swimmers have,” Mark said.
Ledecky first “found” her freestyle stroke when she was an 11-year-old in Bethesda, working with Yuri Suguiyama, who coached her through the 2012 Olympics.
“There was one day — I clearly remember it — where I started swimming with this kind of gallop stroke, kind of loping stroke,” Ledecky recalled. “And I remember him stopping me after one repeat: ‘That. Swim like that. That’s your stroke.’ ”
What they settled on was a slightly unbalanced rhythm, a gallop that’s much more common among male swimmers. In fact, Suguiyama used Michael Phelps’s freestyle stroke as a blueprint. Instead of even, alternating strokes — left arm, right arm, repeat — Ledecky’s pattern is a short left arm stroke followed by a longer right arm.
Mark, whose background in aerospace engineering has sent him on a quest to understand and maximize speed, calls the whole package a “textbook stroke,” in part because of the way Ledecky is able to “catch” water early. That’s the initial movement of her hand when it enters the water, digging in and pulling it back like an ice cream scoop or a paddle. Her fingers are pointed down with her elbow high and out to the side. From the front, her arms, elbow and head form a triangle.
“It’s kind of the strongest point of the pull … because if you let your elbow drop, then you’re not grabbing as much water. It’s a much weaker pull,” Mark said. “So just entering and grabbing that water with the high elbow gets a maximum amount of water.”
From above the surface, the elbow is typically visible, followed by furious splashing. But the real work is happening underwater. That’s where it’s clear Ledecky catches more water than her peers, where she uses her palm and forearm to push it back and propel her forward.
“That’s what sets the best swimmers apart from everybody else: not a lot of wasted movement there,” Mark said.
Those basics thrust her to a gold medal in London when she was still in high school, but the gallop became more pronounced entering the Rio Games. It has flattened out a bit since. Even though she has posted times no one else can touch — including world records at 400, 800 and 1,500 meters — she’s constantly studying the mechanics.
“It kind of becomes an obsession. You always want to try to perfect it or get a little bit better,” she said. “Russell might call it textbook, but I think there’s always ways to improve.”
Other swimmers might swivel their heads from side to side, breathing throughout a race, but Ledecky is much more efficient. Using that unbalanced gallop stroke, in which her left arm movement is shorter and quicker, Ledecky moves her head to only one side.
“The timing of my breath,” she explained, “is super important to the rhythm of my stroke.”
For most freestyle swimmers, breathing disrupts a stroke, the head turns upsetting balance and rocking rhythm. Ledecky has built her breathing into her stroke almost seamlessly.
It’s difficult to see in real time, but as her left hand hits the water, Ledecky turns her head to the right. Often only the right side of her goggles breaks the surface. Her mouth, too, appears to be only partially outside the water, and she somehow manages to breathe without taking in water.
“It’s basically like her mouth creates a pocket of air,” Mark said.
The breath usually happens early in the stroke, too, unlike a lot of swimmers. Most importantly, it’s quick and low, and it has minimal impact on her arm movements, allowing her to maintain balance and generate more power from her hips and legs.
“I might not even be getting a breath every time I breathe. It’s more of the hip rotation that I get when I breathe,” she said. “That’s kind of the power that I generate that helps me get on my side and get into the catch better. It’s where I generate the most power.”
In a sport in which hundredths of a second can determine the winner, a race can be won or lost every time a swimmer approaches the wall. A good flip turn — the somersault motion that begins the moment a swimmer takes her last stroke before her feet touch the wall — can take 1 to 1.3 seconds. Consider that a 1,500-meter race has 29 turns: That amounts to 29 to 35 seconds of race time. The 800 is 15 turns, which translates to 15 to 20 seconds spent on turns.
“That’s a significant amount of time,” Mark said. “So try to minimize that time that you’re spending somersaulting, and then with every one of those 15 to 29 turning opportunities, that’s 15 to 29 push-offs the wall that you can really maximize your starting speed for each length.”
Ledecky and her coaches have identified this as an area for improvement.
“Her approaches are something we’re still talking about and working on,” said Meehan, who’s serving as the head women’s coach for the U.S. team in Tokyo. “No matter how good you are, the best in the world at any sport at any discipline, there’s always things you can get better at.”
It’s easy to slow down and glide into the wall, but the goal is to carry speed entering the turn. Ledecky tries to time the last stroke of her lap perfectly so her hand leads her into the flip. When she’s within an arm’s length of the wall, she dips her head underwater, tucks her chin and begins the somersault with her hands at either side.
Her legs are bent when her feet touch the wall, allowing for a powerful push and dolphin kick as she ricochets back the other direction. She’s essentially jumping sideways off a wall.
“So it’s not just the turn itself, but it’s about the momentum you can create into the turn that then impacts what you’re doing off the wall,” Meehan said. “It’s not just the turn movement, but it’s the next 15 meters off of that turn that can benefit you by carrying better speed. Turns are definitely not a time to rest.”
Ledecky spent much of her 2019-20 season and the unexpected extra year of training that resulted from the Olympic postponement especially focused on her kick. What looks like a thrashing of white water from above is carefully calculated and tailored to each distance. While Ledecky’s stroke and arm movements look similar across her different races, her legs carry a different workload in each race, as she relies on her kick for both speed and balance.
In a longer race, Ledecky more likely will rely on a light two-beat kick, meaning she’ll do one kick per arm stroke. When her right hand enters the water, her left leg kicks, and when her left arm hits the water, her right leg kicks. This isn’t solely for speed but instead allows her to maintain her body position, keeping both her head and lower body close to the surface and saving her arms from doing all the work.
Ledecky will use a more aggressive kick early in longer distances as she seeks a big start, and then after conserving energy she’ll kick more again late, seeking a bigger finish.
“A distance athlete like Katie is trying to find that balance between how the energy is consumed and what you can get out of it,” Mark said.
In the shorter distances, such as the 200, she relies a lot more on her legs for speed, turning to a four-beat or six-beat kick — which translates to either two or three kicks per arm stroke — essentially turning the back half of her body into a motor that helps her torpedo through the water.
Ledecky often will change her kick strategy from qualifying to finals but also will mix it up during a race. She often will close the 800 and 1,500 with a six-beat kick, for example, and though she’s kicking hard throughout a 400, she might turn to a two-beat kick temporarily to conserve energy for a late push.
“In all of her great swims, she’s had a really good kick,” said Meehan, the head coach of Stanford’s women’s team. “I think where there’s been areas for improvement is where she’s not kicking, she’s actually making it harder on herself, especially in some of her prelim swims the last couple of years. Now she can add a little bit of a lighter kick for body balance. And that’s making those longer swims in her prelim session a little bit easier.”
Because Ledecky is carrying such a heavy workload in Tokyo — likely swimming 6,200 meters or more in eight days, including qualifying races and finals, far more than any other Olympic swimmer — Meehan wants Ledecky to utilize her kicks more and not overtax her arms.
“There are times when she’s wanted to swim easier, she would tend to pull, just use her upper body, and her legs would just drag behind, which can be fine at times,” Meehan said. “But I think knowing the number of races that she has to carry at a competition, even when you’re trying to go easier and pulling, if it’s a longer swim, it actually ends up being fatiguing, even if you’re trying to make it easier. I just want it to help her have a few more weapons in her arsenal.”
Ledecky tends to make her distance races look easy, and that’s largely because she’s remarkably consistent. Consider the 800 record she set at the Rio Olympics: a blistering 8:04.79 time that no one in the world, including Ledecky, has been within two seconds of in the five years since. In that race, with the exception of the first 100 and final 50 meters, every 50-meter split was between 30.22 and 30.85 seconds. More recently, in the 1,500 at the Olympic trials, again, except for the first 100 meters and the final 50, Ledecky swam every lap between 31.23 and 31.83 seconds.
“My stroke is very rhythmic, and getting the timing and the rhythm down is crucial,” she said. “And so if one thing is a little bit off, my stroke can feel a little off. So it’s all about trying to hit that tempo, hit that rhythm, so that I can lock into that. Because when I hit it, I can really lock into it and hold it for a long period of time.”
When it comes to consistency, coaches often study stroke rate — the amount of time it takes a swimmer to cycle both arms through a stroke — which is akin to their cadence in the water. Ledecky’s stroke rate is typically higher than everyone else’s in her events. For a 200, Ledecky typically will measure 1.1 seconds per cycle, and for the 1,500, she’ll measure 1.5.
While stroke rate doesn’t perfectly translate to speed, coaches want to see consistency over the course of a race.
“There’s over 500 cycles in a 1,500,” Mark explained. “That’s a lot of arm movements that you’re making. And to be able to maintain that and find that balance between moving water early and then to be able to still do that at the end of a race is really important.”
In many ways, her consistency from the first lap to the last is a byproduct of her conditioning and strength.
As coaches past and present point out, Ledecky isn’t a biological wonder with a superhuman wing span or giant hands. At 6 feet, she’s rarely the tallest on the starting blocks. She has no genetic head start and has to look elsewhere for her edge.
She knows she can improve elements of her swim, and that’s really what seems to drive her — and what ultimately separates her. Ledecky isn’t content with a world record if she thinks she can go faster, just as she isn’t satisfied with her kicks or her turns or her starts if she sees room for improvement.
“To have that kind of work ethic year in and year out, I think, is the secret sauce to her success,” Gaines said. “She pushes herself to the brink of disintegration. She really does push herself to no end, and she’s figured out what can be and can’t be sustained.”
The perfect swimmer is a complex machine in which every piece must function properly and cooperatively. To become the best she has had to perfect each aspect of her swim. As Mark said, a swimmer’s “effectiveness in the pool is the sum of all these parts.”
That’s the only way to understand how Ledecky does what she does. She hasn’t sought to perfect just a single piece of it; Ledecky’s focus is on the totality of the swim, finding slivers of time at each interval — the starting blocks, the stroke, the turns — that propel her past fellow racers and into the record books.
“That’s the beauty of swimming, is the mystery of how it all comes together and how everyone does it differently,” Mark said. “And, you know, the way Katie swims is not totally replicable by another athlete.”