The Katie Ledecky Page
From The New York Times Magazine, "The Olympics Issue," -- The Phenom
Katie Ledecky is so nice. So normal. “She’s a better person than a swimmer,” says her coach, Bruce Gemmell — a comment that, strictly speaking, would put her in the running for best person in the world. After she came home from London in 2012 with an Olympic gold medal, she rejoined her high-school swim team in Bethesda, Md., and when she wasn’t in the water, she stood and cheered on her teammates. At lower-level meets that she’s not attending, members of her club team can count on texts from her: Good luck! Swim fast! She stands just under six feet, but her coach insists that she is shorter than most of her rivals, which is not the case but advances the conceit of Katie being, well, normal.
Ledecky, 19, is also happy, seemingly just about all the time. When you start listing the factors that make her so freakishly good at what she does, being freakishly happy has to rank very high. She rarely has anxieties about her swimming or anything else, and when she does, she says: “I can get rid of them. I’m pretty good at doing that. If I’m worried about something, I’m able to make myself just think about something else.”
The sport she has come to dominate makes almost impossible demands of the body and spirit. It imposes a ratio of hard training to exhilaration that is depressingly out of whack.
Top swimmers train as often as nine times a week, 50-plus weeks a year, with their heads submerged in water for two or more hours at each of those sessions. What they hear is the rhythm of their own strokes, their teammates’ kicking, their coach’s muffled voice.
One of the sport’s cruelties is that all this extreme training produces, on the whole, lackluster competitive performances. Swimmers try to peak just once or twice a year, and they prepare for these occasions in scientific and ritualistic ways. They swim fewer yards in the weeks leading up to a big competition, in order to be rested and fresh. They also, on the eve of major races, shave: women their legs and arms, men their legs, arms, chests, backs and sometimes their heads. The idea is to feel sleek and fast in the water.
In 2012 in London, Ledecky, a little-known 15-year-old, won the gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle, defeating Rebecca Adlington, a British swimmer and world-record holder so heavily favored that Prince William, Kate Middleton and other members of the British royal family were in attendance at the Olympic aquatic center, anticipating a coronation. As the crowd chanted Adlington’s name, Ledecky channeled its energy and imagined the shouts were “Ledecky, Ledecky, Ledecky.”
In the four years since, she has been on a world-record spree, setting them at all times of the year and over a stunning range of distances. First she established her supremacy in the distance freestyles, then she took command of shorter events. She is now the world’s top female swimmer in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. She is among the best Americans in the 100 free. No swimmer has conquered this combination of distances in nearly half a century, and to many in the sport, her achievement is hard to fathom — it would be like the Jamaican star sprinter Usain Bolt taking up and winning mile races.So much more at the link, including vignettes about breaking more of her own records.
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