PHOENIX – When three-time Olympian Katie Ledecky first stepped into the pool at the age of 6, her goal was to be able to make it across the pool without stopping.
Now, 20 years later and with 10 Olympic medals and 16 individual World Championships under her belt, her expectations look a little bit different.
In an online forum hosted by the Association for Women in Sports Media recently, Ledecky said that, while the expectations might be higher than when she was 6, she still loves finding the fun in swimming.
“What’s not to smile about,” Ledecky said. “It’s a pretty fun thing to be able to do every day.”
During this year’s World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, Ledecky added two gold medals to her tally in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle, bringing her total number of individual world titles to 16. With the new additions, Ledecky passed Michael Phelps who held the previous record with 15 individual titles.
“Before Katie came along, common convention held that distance swimmers, especially women, had a shelf life of one or two Olympic cycles at most,” said Karen Crouse, a former USC swimmer who covered the Olympics and swimming while at the New York Times. “Katie took those perceptions and shattered them as deftly as she has rewritten the record books.”
Aside from passing Phelps for the most individual titles, Ledecky also became the first swimmer in history to win the same event six consecutive times. As amazing a feat as this is, it almost did not happen.
At the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Ledecky was dealing with some minor health issues. After she swam her 1,500-meter freestyle preliminary, she felt as though something was off. After speaking with USA Swimming medical staff, she had ultimately decided to pull out of the 1,500 freestyle final as well as the 200 freestyle altogether. Ledecky’s focus was on getting well enough to compete in her last two races, the 4×200-meter relay and the 800 freestyle.
The morning of the relay, Ledecky did a light swim for the first time in two days. Feeling confident that she could put together a decent split, she competed. The relay team won silver.
Happy with being able to get through the relay, Ledecky was excited to get to the 800 freestyle. However, similar to the 1,500 freestyle, Ledecky struggled to get through prelims. Despite feeling like it was the hardest 800 she had swam, she made it to the final.
“I tried to just dive in open mind, forget about being sick, swim it like I normally do,” Ledecky said. “I know how to swim a 800 free. That’s what I was telling myself.”
Ledecky recounted the feeling of hitting a wall and swimming side-by-side with Simona Quadarella, the Italian swimmer next to her for most of the race. Able to pull away during the last 50 meters, Ledecky walked away with gold. Without her perseverance in that 2019 race, Ledecky’s streak would have been gone.
“In hindsight, that’s a race I am really, really proud of,” Ledecky said. “At the time, it wasn’t anything special. But now, a month out from this past World Championships when I won six straight 800 frees, I have to chalk it up to that.”
Ledecky recently started training in Gainesville, at the University of Florida. Her choice to return to the East Coast was backed by a lot of different factors. Ledecky finished her degree at Stanford just before the Tokyo Olympics, so she didn’t have any academic ties keeping her out west. Her family also resides on the East Coast near Washington, D.C., and Ledecky was looking forward to being closer to them after the pandemic kept them separated.
In Gainesville, Ledecky trains with some of the world’s best swimmers, both distance and sprint, and even spends her time training with some of the top male swimmers.
“I always feel like I get a lot out of being able to have somebody to chase and really kind of stretch myself,” Ledecky said. “So it’s just incredibly exciting to be part of that group, and we all have shared goals of getting to Paris and representing Team USA.”
Ledecky, 26, is very internally motivated. For her, that means a lot of her motivation comes from setting goals that excite her and that she knows will push her to get out of bed in the morning. She shared how easy it is to be motivated when she’s walking onto a pool deck with various Olympians at training. She even credited teammate Caleb Dressel for saying that for them, walking out onto the pool deck is like walking into Disney World every day.
Support from her coaches, teammates and family are another motivating factor for Ledecky, especially on the tough days. It is also important for her to find balance in her life.
“I try to make sure that I’m not constantly thinking about swimming, because that’s when the motivation piece can get a little tough,” Ledecky said. “You constantly have to make sure that you’re feeling refreshed and excited to achieve those goals.”
Pressure is something everyone deals with, even more so as a top athlete. For Ledecky, focusing on what is ahead of her and staying true to who she is helps keep the pressure out of her mind.
Crouse observed that any external pressure Ledecky might feel is the product of high expectations that come from her dominance in the sport.
“When swimmers are within a body-length or half-a-body-length of her at the finish, it’s almost seen by some people as a disappointment because Katie’s unsurpassed excellence has spoiled the viewing public,” Crouse said.
“She has been the tide that has lifted the world’s performances in her events, and yet she continues to dominate the 800 and 1,500 as if it were 2016, which is a testament to her competitive spirit and her toughness and her desire, but most of all her abiding love for the sport.”
After a successful World Championships in July, Ledecky has turned her focus to the next 10 months and her preparation for Paris. The 2024 Olympics would be Ledecky’s fourth time representing Team USA.
Ledecky first entered the Olympic stage in 2012, where she shocked the world, taking home gold in the 800 freestyle. Ledecky is the most decorated female swimmer in Olympic history and is excited about the possibility of Paris 2024.
“If you would have told me back in 2012, that I would have that opportunity, I’m sure I couldn’t have thought that far in the future,” Ledecky said. “I just wanted to continue to stay at that level and continue to have opportunities to travel the world and be able to compete.”
In preparation for Paris, Ledecky plans to compete in one meet per month between now and the Olympic Trials in June 2024, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The event includes nine days of competition with 17 sessions.
“I’ve enjoyed each step of the way, enjoyed each challenge and (I’m) mentally and physically ready for the next year and for all the ups and downs that the Olympic year will present,” Ledecky said.