Katie Ledecky, in a lane of her own, somehow might be getting better

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Katie Ledecky first joined up with Anthony Nesty’s Gator Swim Club in the fall of 2021, among the first things the coach told her, in his inimitable, accented baritone, were six words she never expected to hear: “You need to get more athletic.”

But Ledecky — fresh off the sixth and seventh gold medals of her Olympic career at the just-completed Tokyo Games and the owner of two extant world records — had not become arguably the greatest female swimmer in history by defying her coaches. So rather than reminding Nesty of all that, she agreed to endeavor to become more athletic.

And so it was that Ledecky, 24 at the time, came to know the glory and the agony of “Gator Mountain.”

As she quickly learned, on those mornings when Nesty’s rundown of the day’s workout includes Gator Mountain, his swimmers could look forward to running up and down the stairs of the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — the monstrous football stadium (known as “The Swamp”) that in the afternoons casts a literal shadow over the O’Connell Center pool across the street — until Nesty tells them to stop.

“I told her from Day 1: ‘Look, I’m going to tell you things you’re probably not going to like. But it’s going to help you,’ ” Nesty, himself an Olympic gold medalist for his native Suriname in 1988, said of his approach to taking on such an accomplished champion. “I said, ‘I know you’re Katie Ledecky, but as good as you are, you’re not perfect.’ ”

All these months later, the effect of the overhaul Ledecky has undergone in Gainesville — both in and out of the pool — is evident everywhere, from her sleeker body to her longer and more efficient stroke. But it is especially visible on the scoreboard, where some of her recent times have approached her personal bests — which also means they are approaching world records.

At an age when most distance swimmers have long since retired, or at least given up any notion of catching their younger selves, Ledecky is defying history and accepted swimming wisdom by getting faster in her mid-20s. And she’s on the verge of forcing another recalibration of her unparalleled career by next summer’s Paris Olympics, which would be her fourth Summer Games.

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This week, Ledecky will mark the 12-month run-up to Paris 2024 by competing in Fukuoka, Japan, with Team USA at the world championships, with a chance to add to her already towering legacy. Of her 19 career gold medals at worlds — second only to Michael Phelps’s 26 — 14 have been in individual events, which trails Phelps by just one. Wins in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles, events in which Ledecky, the world record holder, will be the overwhelming favorite, would push her past Phelps. A win in the 800 free would make her the first swimmer, male or female, to win the same event at worlds six straight times.

Over a breakfast of eggs and toast one morning last month at her favorite Gainesville diner, Ledecky, now 26, was asked whether her recent performances in the pool have validated her decision to shift her training base from Stanford University to Gainesville nearly two years ago.

“I don’t think I ever needed the results to have the validation,” she said. “It’s more just the happiness I feel here, the enjoyment I get every day in training with this group and these coaches. It’s just really satisfying. Even if I was going slower, I’d be happy to be here. The results make it even better.”

Ledecky also will swim the 400 free and the 4×200 free relay in Fukuoka, the former of which, on Sunday, will feature a hotly anticipated showdown between her and two younger rivals: Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, 22, who ran down Ledecky for the gold medal in Tokyo, then surpassed Ledecky’s world record last year, and Canadian phenom Summer McIntosh, 16, who subsequently lowered Titmus’s world standard two months ago to a blazing 3 minutes 56.08 seconds.

As sizzling as the 400 free in Fukuoka should be, next year’s edition of the same race — at the Paris Olympics, with its higher stakes and 12 more months of building anticipation — already is taking on a “Race of the Century” level of hype within the sport. And it is only a slight exaggeration to say that race, more than anything else, compelled Ledecky to move across the country.

“It’s going to take a world record, that 400,” Nesty said. “Next summer, this summer, maybe both. It will have to be perfect to win.”

‘Efficiency is a huge piece’

In July 2021, at the end of the Tokyo Olympics, Ledecky found herself at a career crossroads.

She had won four more medals — golds in the 800 and 1,500 frees, silvers in the 400 free and the 4×200 free relay — but her times in the three individual finals were a combined 10 seconds slower than five years earlier at the Rio de Janeiro Games, where, at 19, she had been at the height of her powers. And her runner-up finish in the 400 to Titmus, who caught and passed her over the final 50 meters, marked the first time she had been beaten in an individual Olympics final.

Publicly, she has expressed no dissatisfaction with her Tokyo results, saying even last month, “I was happy with Tokyo, of course.”

But to have been fully content would have required an acknowledgment that it was the best she could do, that she was incapable of being faster, that her age and her rivals were catching up to her and there was nothing she could do about it.

That was not something Ledecky was willing to acknowledge.

“She came home from Tokyo, knowing her like I do, partly unsatisfied,” said Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky’s coach from 2013 to 2016, a period that includes the Rio Olympics, who remains a friend and mentor, “and was like, ‘All right, what do I need to do, from a culture, environment [and] motivation standpoint, to be better?’ ”

At a Team USA training camp in Hawaii just before the Tokyo Olympics, Ledecky had spent some time in a practice lane with Bobby Finke and Kieran Smith — teammates with the Gator Swim Club and two of the fastest male mid-distance/distance freestylers in the world — with their coach, Nesty, on the pool deck barking out encouragement. The experience transported her back to her preparation for the 2016 Olympics, when her training group at Nation’s Capital Swim Club in Bethesda, Md., consisted of mostly male swimmers — because no female swimmers could consistently push her in practice.

Ledecky has always thrived on the adrenaline rush of competition (in the 400 free in Tokyo, Titmus pushed her to her fastest time in five years), and she took to racing against Finke and Smith in those practice sessions, building a quick rapport with the Gator duo and their coach. Racing Ledecky may have helped the men in Tokyo as well; Finke was an out-of-nowhere double gold medalist in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles, while Smith, seeded sixth entering the final of the 400 free, took bronze.

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After Tokyo — once Ledecky had made up her mind she would leave Stanford, her training base from 2016 to 2021, and move back to the East Coast to be closer to home — Gainesville was the only place she visited as a potential base for the next chapter of her career and Nesty the only coach she interviewed.

“She did her research. She doesn’t make decisions lightly,” Nesty said. “The really good athletes are very observant. We were together five weeks [between training camp in Hawaii and the Tokyo Olympics], and I think she kind of liked the approach, how we handled practice.”

According to Nesty, aside from targeting Ledecky’s athleticism, he told her one other thing soon after her move to Gainesville: “You’re not going to get run down ever again” — a reference to Titmus’s overtaking her in Tokyo.

Together with USA Swimming’s high-performance staff, Nesty began an overhaul of Ledecky’s vaunted freestyle stroke — notable for its pronounced, syncopated “gallop” — which he believed had become “kind of choppy” over the preceding years. More than just an opinioned observation, the statement was borne out by the data.

When Ledecky won gold in the 800 free in Rio in a world record 8:04.79, she took 657 strokes (or 328½ “stroke-cycles,” measured left hand to left hand) across those 16 lengths, according to USA Swimming data, with a stroke rate (the time required for each stroke-cycle) that varied between a low of 1.24 seconds and a high of 1.38, with an average of 1.34.

In Tokyo, where she won gold in the same race but with a time that was nearly eight seconds slower, she took 676 strokes — more than one extra stroke per length of the pool — with a stroke-rate that got as low as 1.18 seconds and that averaged 1.30. In other words, she was turning over her stroke more frequently but moving less water and traveling a shorter distance with each one — the aquatic equivalent of spinning your wheels.

“Sometimes, when we talk about how she looked not as good [in Tokyo] — sometimes, she would work herself into technical problems because she is so determined and dedicated to her craft,” said Matt Barbini, USA Swimming’s national team director of performance. “It’s weird that her technique sometimes ended up in a place we didn’t want it, just because she was trying to do everything right. She’s the hardest-working, most consistent athlete we’ve got.”

After almost two full years in Gainesville, the difference is stark: Last month, during the national championships, where USA Swimming picked its team for the world championships, Ledecky won the 800 free in 8:07.07, her fastest time at that distance since the Rio Olympics nearly seven years earlier. And she did with a longer, more efficient stroke, completing those 16 lengths in just 644 strokes (13 fewer than in Rio and 32 fewer than in Tokyo) with a stroke-rate that averaged 1.36 seconds. According to some in attendance, the difference in her stroke, slower and more powerful, was visible to the naked eye.

“Efficiency is a huge piece of what we’re trying to do with her,” Barbini said, adding that Ledecky also has reined in her kick as a means of conserving energy. “Kicking is the biggest energy-suck in swimming. And she’s much lighter on her legs now at the longer distances.”

Asked if he thought the reined-in kick might be at least partially a concession to Ledecky’s age, Barbini said, “I don’t know that Katie makes concessions to anything.”

“Maybe ‘more controlled’ would be the way to say it,” Ledecky said when asked about the changes. “I think for several years, tempo had been my priority: trying to go faster. I was always trying to increase my tempo — whereas now my priority is swimming efficiently, maximizing my distance per stroke. The key is to try to go faster at that same stroke-count, trying to go faster without adding strokes.”

On more days than not at their Gator Swim Club practices, Ledecky finds herself in the distance freestyle lane with Finke and Smith. And even when the men manage to hold her off on a given day, they know to keep their mouths shut. “You can’t trash-talk Katie,” Finke said. “It’s impossible.”

Asked if she ever uses her imagination and substitutes Titmus and McIntosh for Finke and Smith during those head-to-head-to-head duels at practice, Ledecky predictably scoffed, saying, “At that point, I’m just racing Bobby and Kieran — which is enough.”

But her coach had a different answer. “I’m pretty sure she is,” Nesty said. “She does that all the time.”

The limits of what’s possible

Ledecky recently purchased an electric keyboard, hoping to rekindle her childhood love of piano, after having gotten away from playing while at Stanford and during her transition to a professional career.

Having stopped taking lessons as a youngster, she is now more of a self-taught chord player than a straight-up music reader, and she sticks mostly to the meat-and-potatoes of the rock-piano repertoire: Springsteen, the Beatles, Billy Joel. “I try to play at least a few minutes every day,” she said. “Music has always been a big part of my life.”

Though she can feel the gravity of swimming trying to tether her to a state of suspended adolescence — her life, after all, is governed by the same daily cycle of swim-eat-sleep-swim-eat-sleep as it was when she was 15 — she also is feeling the tug of the future.

Although she now thinks she’ll keep swimming through Los Angeles 2028 — an unprecedented Olympic five-peat in the 800, at her first Olympics on American soil, might be the perfect bow on her career — she can’t guarantee she’ll still feel that way after Paris.

She may wind up going to graduate school, she said, or perhaps law school. She is a news junkie and a voracious reader, with some of her recent choices stemming from a book-swap group she started in Gainesville with Caeleb Dressel, the seven-time Olympic gold medalist who is still working his way back from a prolonged absence following the Tokyo Games. Her favorites tend to be nonfiction works that sit somewhere near the intersection of law, psychology, business and human interaction. At the time, she was tearing her way through Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers.”

“I don’t know much beyond the next couple years,” she said. “But I don’t need to, I guess.”

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She was a 15-year-old phenom when she won her first gold in London in 2012, a 19-year-old superstar coming out of Rio de Janeiro 2016 with four more gold medals plus two world records and a 23-year-old all-time great after two more golds in Tokyo two summers ago.

But her age is working against her now, and she will be swimming upstream against history in Paris. While sprinters frequently remain elite deep into their 20s or even past 30, distance swimmers never do: No female swimmer older than 24 has won an individual Olympic gold at a distance longer than 200 meters.

Ledecky will be 27 in Paris, 31 in Los Angeles.

“To be this good at this age, and with this many miles and no major injuries?” Barbini said. “We’ll never see anything like this ever again.”

But as Ledecky found out in Tokyo, treading water isn’t going to be enough to hold on to her reign for much longer, not with a new generation of swimmers bearing down on her and another one making its way to the starting blocks. Thus, the move to Gainesville. Thus, the overhauled stroke. Thus, the encounters with Gator Mountain and the thousands more hours spent staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool.

Should it all pay off — should she stay clear of the rest of the world next summer in Paris, maybe even take back her crown in the 400, and should she somehow do it all again four years later in Los Angeles — her data point on the dot-graph of swimming history will look much like the closing laps of one of her long races:

Clustered in the middle will be all the other greats. And there, way out in the distance, alone and almost out of view, will be Ledecky.


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