Last summer Katie Ledecky proved she is without peer in the water. Then she returned home to Bethesda and realized that land is another matter.
To prepare for her freshman year of college, the six-time Olympic medalist had to re-learn how to ride a bicycle. In her longest break away from the pool, Ledecky and her brother made regular visits to a local park, where the world’s best swimmer wobbled her way forward and prepared for Stanford’s sprawling campus.
“Once I got going, it came back,” she said with a laugh. “I would consider myself a pretty good biker now.”
With that out of the way, her freshman year turned out to be a fairly smooth ride — one for the record books, in fact. Ledecky, who turned 20 earlier this month, is preparing for a big summer season and is coming off one of the best freshman campaigns the sport has seen. She set or re-set 12 NCAA records and nine American records, won titles in five events at the NCAA championships and earlier this month helped Stanford’s women’s team win its first national championship since 1998.
“In terms of the excitement, it might even surpass things like world championships and the Olympics,” she said. “Just the way you’re swimming for your team — there’s something different about being a part of group you spend all this time with, working toward the same goal. You get behind the blocks for your race, knowing you have a chance to help your team.”
After the Cardinal won, Ledecky celebrated by taking a day off from the pool. But she couldn’t afford to take much longer. Preparations for a big summer began almost immediately. College swimming might create lasting memories, but the international competition is where Ledecky’s legacy will be built.
Less than a year after a blowing most others out of the pool at the Rio Games, she has her sights set on the world championships this summer, where she’s again expected to tackle an ambitious program of races. While many of her Stanford classmates are visiting leisurely locales on spring break this week, Ledecky is at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, hitting the pool twice a day, studying video, working on technique.
While she spent the college season making waves in a short-course pool, she’s now transitioning to the Olympic-size pool, which is more than twice as long. Frank Busch, the U.S. national team director, said Ledecky is probably a better swimmer in the bigger pool.
“The longer she can keep her rhythm together, the better she goes,” he said. “And in the long course pool without the distraction of turns, she’s able to create a tempo and lock into that rhythm and hold that for her entire race.”
Ledecky made a similar change each spring throughout her high school career, of course, but at Stanford the transition isn’t quite as stark. The swim team there has an Olympic-sized pool at its disposal and the swimmers trained in it either three or four mornings each week.
“It’s just a different animal,” Ledecky said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “This short-course season I treated just as seriously as I would a long course season. But I think now it’s more of a mental switch.”
Ledecky graduated from Stone Ridge in Bethesda in 2015 but took a gap year to focus on her preparations for Rio de Janeiro. The decision paid off: She set two world records at last summer’s Olympics and brought home four gold medals and a silver. That haul was added to the gold medal she won as a 15-year-old at the London Olympics in 2012.
After a summer in which she was featured on national prime-time television nearly every night during the Games, Ledecky was surely the most accomplished athlete to enroll in Stanford last fall. She wasn’t looking for any extra attention, though, when she arrived in Palo Alto, Calif., last September.
“I really did feel like a normal freshman,” she said. “Of course, there were a few people who’d come up and want picture during orientation. But the best part is I was new to campus, too, and wanted to meet as many people as I could.”
She became more comfortable on a bike, learned her way around the large campus and felt right at home in the water. Swimming can be a solitary exercise, and Ledecky has always relished the team aspect of the sport.
She had worked with Bruce Gemmell, coach at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, since shortly after the London Olympics, but with college approaching, the relationship always seemed to have a built-in expiration date. Following the Rio Games, Gemmell turned his prized pupil over to Stanford Coach Greg Meehan.
Meehan was an assistant for the U.S. team at the Rio Games but didn’t start working with Ledecky on a daily basis until she enrolled at Stanford. He knew how gifted she was but was still struck by her consistency in the pool each day.
“Sometimes, you kind of stop being a coach and become a bit of a fan when she’s in a groove,” he said. “You’re watching stuff that no one has really done before.”
Meehan and Ledecky have started discussing goals for the summer. At Stanford, classes continue until mid-June, just a week before the national championships in Indianapolis. That meet serves as trials for the world championships in July in Budapest.
Ledecky competed in five events at the Rio Games but hasn’t settled on a program for the worlds. She holds the world record in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter races. The women’s 1,500 isn’t contested at the Olympics, but Ledecky says there’s no reason to stop competing in her most dominant event. She could stick with the 100-meter freestyle — at least so she can compete on the 4x100 relay team — and possibly mix in the 400-meter individual medley, too.
At this point, Ledecky says she’s not ready to rule anything out for this summer.
Even after classes end, she’ll continue training this summer in Palo Alto, where she jokes the outdoor pools have given her a better tan. Meehan says they’ll eventually settle on a schedule that makes sense this summer and also keeps Ledecky pointed toward success at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Between then and now, Ledecky might have some big decisions to make. By competing as an amateur, she’s already passed up huge sponsorship opportunities. But she’s enjoying the rewards of college swimming too much and says she plans to compete again next year for Stanford.
“I love school. I love the environment. I enjoy all my classes and I’ve met some amazing people, professors, classmates, roommates, teammates,” she said. “Everything has been great.”