Sunday, July 31, 2016

Katie Ledecky

“She has an intensity to her swimming that I have never seen in a distance athlete. She’s completely fearless.” — Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s coach

JUNE 27 and 28 Paul and I attended the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha. It's the third time we've been to the trials. We went for the first time in 2008 during what we call 'our sporty summer' and absolutely loved it. We were back in 2012 to watch Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte duel, as well as other swimming greats. 

I've written a number of posts about the races we were lucky enough to see in 2012: US Olympic Swimming TrialsLochte vs. Phelps at the US Olympic TrialsWomen's 200m Back Olympic TrialsMen's 100m Fly Olympic TrialsMen's 50m Freestyle Olympic TrialsDara Torres in the Women's 50m Freestyle Olympic Trials

That year we saw someone swim (Women's 800m Freestyle Olympic Trials) who, in the opinion of notable swimming experts, might be positioned to become an even greater phenomenon in the sport than Michael PhelpsKatie Ledecky.

Below are photos we took of the women's 400 freestyle finals at the 2016 Olympic Swimming Trials. Katie is in lane 4.

I read this feature article on her with great interest that came out yesterday in The New York Times Magazine Olympics Issue. I've shared it with you below.

The Phenom

The most dominant swimmer in the pool this summer is 19-year-old Katie Ledecky. The question isn’t whether she’ll win, but by how much.

By Michael Sokolove

July 31, 2016

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.

Ledecky wants practices and all but the biggest meets to feel harder, not easier. “I haven’t shaved my legs since Russia,” she told me late last year in one of our first conversations, referring to a competition many months earlier. She laughed, which she does often. She has a big, engaging smile. “I’m sorry,” she added. “That’s probably too much information, right?”

Ledecky grew up in the suburbs of Washington and started swimming at 6 in a local summer league. Early on, she was fast but not a prodigy. She participated in a weekly Irish dance program and until she was 11 still played soccer and basketball. Her emergence as an elite swimmer was sudden, and it surprised her parents. At a meet at a neighborhood pool when she was 13, the volunteer announcer introduced her before one heat by saying, “I’m sure you’ll see her in the Olympics someday.” It bothered her father. “I was like, Come on, she’s 13 years old,” David Ledecky told me.

His daughter, though, was quietly setting goals, sharing them only with her coach — first, make the Olympic trials, then qualify for the Summer Games. In one of her first meets with world-class competition, she swam a 400-meter freestyle against Allison Schmitt, a top American swimmer who is seven years older. “I gave her a bit of a race,” is how Ledecky recalls it. “After that, I knew I could compete against those people. I wasn’t afraid to race them.”

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.

In mid-January, I attended a three-day meet at the University of Texas in Austin. A large contingent of top American and international swimmers were there. Most of them talked about using the weekend to measure the state of their training; no one, or almost no one, was expecting to produce particularly fast results.

On the day before the racing began, Ledecky, who took a gap year after high school to train for the Olympics before she enrolls at Stanford this September, was led into a small media room by a staff member of USA Swimming. Not uncommon for a swimmer, she can seem a little awkward on land, and she approached the lectern with a gangly, slightly slope-shouldered gait. When the questioning began, she seemed to try to fall in line with the other swimmers’ modest goals. She said, for example, that she was just hoping to “implement” some of what she had been working on in practices. A poised public speaker, she referred to the coming competition more than once as “one of these kinds of meets” — meaning not too big a deal. But when someone asked what times she anticipated, she smiled, and it was a thinner smile, almost a smirk. “I think it’s going to be a good weekend,” she said. It was Ledecky’s demure way of saying: Keep your eye on me.

On the meet’s last day, she broke her own world record in the 800 freestyle, her 11th world mark since London. At the United States Swim Trials in Omaha, Neb., earlier this summer, she won three events. She could end up with four or possibly even five gold medals in Rio, depending on how many relays she participates in. The first eight nights of NBC’s Olympic coverage will focus on swimming, with about 90 minutes of live coverage from the pool every evening, and Ledecky will play a starring role. She will get the kind of exposure that recent American Olympians have eagerly converted into riches, but Ledecky has distinguished herself in another way too: She has not become a professional athlete. This has little to do with pursuing some notion of Olympic purity, which never existed anyway; instead, it is a savvy decision that serves her swimming and may very well give her a competitive advantage. While some others are out chasing endorsement dollars, she is focused only on gold.

When you see Ledecky race, it looks as if she is sprinting every length, even the distance events — which seems impossible, because who could sprint full-out for, say, 800 meters, 16 lengths of a 50-meter pool? But Ledecky does. “That’s kind of how I treat it,” she said when I asked if she was really sprinting. She saves her legs in the early portions of a distance event, kicking just enough to keep her body riding high in the water, but she pulls at a fast tempo and with near maximum effort. One way to explain how she has become a sprinter, adding shorter races to her area of dominance, is to recognize that it is what she has already been doing. (The 100-meter freestyle is considered a sprint, the 200 and 400 middle-distance events and the 800 and 1,500 distance races.)

In Austin, I sat down with Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s coach, whom I first met while writing about Phelps when he was roughly the same age that Ledecky is now. “She has an intensity to her swimming that I have never seen in a distance athlete,” he said. “She’s completely fearless” — by which he meant she goes out fast without the fear of fading at the end.

Swimming is a highly technical sport, and there are different approaches to each stroke, but Ledecky’s freestyle is a near replica of Phelps’s. In what she recalls as a “eureka moment,” it was taught to her in 2011, when she was 14, by her coach Yuri Suguiyama, who has since moved on to become the associate head coach of the men’s swim team at the University of California, Berkeley. He showed her a video of Phelps setting a world record in a 200 free at a world championship meet, and they set out to copy his form.

Unlike Phelps, whose physique is built for swimming — a long torso, big hands that serve as paddles and relatively short legs (which create less drag in the water) — Ledecky is unremarkably proportioned. She describes her stroke as “loping,” but there is nothing leisurely-looking about it. She has what swim coaches call a “high elbow catch” and a quick connection to the water. Her arms are never up in the air very long. Like Phelps, she has a “gallop” in her stroke: She glides on one side just an instant longer, like a sailboat keeling.

Her future coach at Stanford, Greg Meehan, uses the term “aquatic strength” in talking about her prowess, adding that it’s hard to quantify and not related to how much weight a person can lift in a gym. “She grabs a lot of water and holds onto it through every stroke,” is how he explains it. “And she is able to do that again and again, without letting up.”

Until the year of the London Games, Ledecky breathed to both sides, every third stroke, but that creates too much side-to-side body sway for efficient racing. She now breathes to her right side, with her left arm in the water — and so smoothly that the goggle on her left eye never comes fully out of the water. You wonder how she even gets air.

“Her form is as close to perfect as exists,” says Russell Mark, a former college swimmer with a degree in aerospace engineering who is a high-performance consultant for USA Swimming. Mark compiles metrics for America’s top swimmers. His numbers indicate that Ledecky has been steadily increasing her tempo — turning her strokes over faster — while also improving the quality of her stroke, meaning each one takes her farther. This combination is enormously difficult to accomplish. When younger swimmers increase their tempo, they often “spin” — they don’t get anywhere — but even the best swimmers can fall into a version of the same trap. In her 800-meter races, in which her world record is 8:06.68, Ledecky is now completing a full cycle — or strokes with each arm — approximately every 1.4 seconds. After her push off the wall, she covers 50 meters with 20 cycles.

“People trying to go fast are like animals,” said Bowman, who happens to own thoroughbreds and sees in them some of the same biomechanical habits of the swimmers he trains. “You watch a horse. The first thing they do is increase their stride length. And the second thing is the rate. She followed the natural progression. She picked up the rate of her stroke to keep the thing moving forward, which is how she got from 8:14 to 8:06 in the 800. Sooner or later she’ll have to go back to length. It’s a balance. You can’t just do one or the other.”

Swimmers race the clock and one another every day in practice. Carol Capitani, who has coached male and female swimmers and now coaches the women’s swim team at Texas, says that women training together have “a different community” and often see one another as friends first, rather than competitors. Women “need to get permission from each other that it’s all right to lay it on the line every day,” she says. “They have to do it with grace and humility, but they have to learn, and sometimes I have to coach them to understand, that it’s not about taking turns or making allowances for someone having a bad day. You have to try to beat that person next to you every time. Be happy that you’re fast.”

Ledecky’s competitiveness is apparent at practices and in meets, even if it is expressed quietly. About 15 minutes before their events, swimmers gather in a “ready room” that usually consists of a few rows of chairs and a TV showing the races. Ledecky invariably sits in a kind of trance with her parka zipped up and her hood pulled over her head. The intensity she radiates causes even friends to keep their distance. “At practice, she’s a nice girl,” Anna Belousova, a 19-year-old Russian breaststroker who trains with Ledecky, told me. “At meets, I’m afraid to go near her.”

One afternoon this spring, I was sitting with Ledecky by the pool at Georgetown Prep, an all-boys school where her team, the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, practices. A couple of freshmen came over and asked for an autograph, and she signed. I suggested to her that she seemed to enjoy beating her opponents, not just by a bit, but really crushing them. “Sure I do,” she said. “It’s not like you can be nice when you race. But it’s not personal. I’m mostly focused on my own time, and you’ve got to be mean to the clock, right?”

In the starting blocks before a race, Ledecky does not stroke her biceps or pound her fists against her own body, as some male swimmers do. (In Omaha, a swimmer billing himself as the Dark Knight went to the blocks in a Batman mask.) She just stretches her neck a bit and shakes her arms out, then dives in the pool and wins.

In Bethesda, Ledecky trains with about 30 swimmers, spread out over eight lanes, coached by Bruce Gemmell and two assistant coaches. But she has only three real training partners, all of them male, because they are the only ones with the ability to keep up with her. They swim either in the same lane or in an adjoining lane to Ledecky. Her training mates told me that when they are supposed to be going at a slower pace — practices consist of repeated sets of distances swum at variable rates of speed and effort — she tends to swim fast, pulling the whole group along with her. The ability to coast is something she either does not want or does not have. Ledecky told me that sometimes she has bad days at practice, when she is just not feeling energetic, and shrugs them off. If she has two in a row, it frustrates her. Her aerobic fitness is a combination of her genetics — her “big engine,” as Meehan, the Stanford coach says — and the fact that she works so hard.

It’s not unusual for men and women swimmers to train together, but being in the pool with Ledecky is something that many men can’t handle. In April, Conor Dwyer, a 6-foot-5, 27-year-old American swimmer who won a gold medal in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay in London, gave a revealing interview posted online by USA Swimming. In it, he talked about male swimmers being “broken” by Ledecky when they practiced together at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

“She is no easy task to beat in practice, even as a male,” he said. “I didn’t get broken by her, so I’m happy with that.” He added: “I saw her break a lot of guys in practice. ... What I mean is if we’re doing a 3K threshold” — 30 all-out 100 frees — “she’ll just start beating you every single hundred, and slowly but surely you get broken like you do in a long race, like a mile. Your morale goes down pretty quickly when you get broken by a female in practice. I saw a couple of guys have to get yanked out of workout because they got beat by her.”

When I asked Ledecky about this, she claimed not to have noticed. “I was probably just concentrating on doing my own work,” she said.

Ledecky’s training partners include Andrew Gemmell, the coach’s son, who is 25 and finished ninth in the 1,500 at the 2012 London Games, and Matthew Hirschberger, 17, who competed at this summer’s Olympic trials and is one of the nation’s top young middle-distance swimmers. (Neither qualified for the games in Rio.) “I’m not gonna lie, it can be annoying when she beats you,” Hirschberger told me. Even if the person getting the best of him is a reigning world-record holder in three events? “You’re just not used to getting beat by a girl,” he said.

When Gemmell swam for the college team at Georgia, he trained with both male and female Olympians. “Look, I understand, he’s a little younger,” he said, when I told him what Hirschberger had shared. “I’ve got a little more of a perspective. There have been a couple of times where I’ve come really close to asking my dad: Can I pop out of practice to watch? Because what’s going on next to me is just ridiculous. It’s unreal.”

Ledecky’s ability to crush men in practice does not necessarily mean she would defeat them in competition. There’s a difference between imposing her will, and perhaps superior conditioning, over the course of a two-hour practice and doing it in a shorter race in which men’s generally greater strength provides an advantage. Her best chance would probably be in the 1,500 freestyle, which women race at the FINA World Championships but not at the Olympics. (The men don’t swim the 800 in the Olympics, so there are the same number of events for male and female swimmers.) 

Ledecky’s best time in the event would put her among the dozen or so top American men and is 25 seconds faster than their qualifying time at the United States Olympic trials — but it is much too slow to earn a medal at the Games. On the other hand, because no other woman offers a real challenge to her, she is never pushed in that event. I asked Andrew Gemmell, who specializes in the 1,500 free, a hypothetical question: What if, in some dystopian swim universe, Ledecky was told that there would be no women’s events and that she would have to try to make the American team by competing with the men in the 1,500?

His father, who trains her, had told me that he did not think she could qualify, a feat that under current rules would require her to finish first or second at the trials. Andrew, who trains side by side with her, had a different answer. “It would be really difficult, but I would never bet against her,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows yet what she’s capable of.”

Ledecky is, in a sense, the last amateur of the Olympic Games. She is not the only Olympian who has opted against turning pro — in many sports, there is no appreciable money to be made — but she is the only one at her exalted level. In order to accept a swimming scholarship at Stanford, she chose to pass up millions of dollars in potential endorsement contracts.

For many years, Olympians had to remain amateurs, at least ostensibly. The “amateur ideal” may have been outdated from the start, and it hurt many athletes, going all the way back to Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of his medals from the 1912 Games when it was later discovered that he had accepted money to play semipro baseball. (The medals were restored posthumously.) But professionalism has its own costs. At the Olympic trials in Omaha, it was hard to miss the pure joy with which Ledecky seemed to be swimming, especially compared with rivals who spoke of the immense pressure they were feeling. It helped, of course, that she was so far ahead of her competition and did not really have to worry about qualifying. But one reason for this might be that she has achieved an ideal that is so difficult for others to reach — truly racing for herself. “The more money that gets put into something, the more it gets messed up,” Bowman, Phelps’s coach, told me. “Nobody is demanding her time. She never misses a day. That’s how you maintain that level.”

There are just a handful of swimmers who have made life-changing money from the sport, but for those who do, most notably Phelps, it can be a lot. “She would have had the earnings potential that no one but Michael has had, if she wanted it,” Bowman said. I asked Matt Powell, a sports-industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market-research firm, about Ledecky’s commercial value. “She has a terrific personality — great kid, great smile, she’s excelling at a really high level,” he said. “The endorsement side could be worth millions to her, as much as $10 to $15 million per year.”

At different times, I heard Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell, say that she was going to be a performer “in NBC’s billion-dollar reality show,” referring to the network’s telecasts from Rio. It was said with an edge. Her parents and coach well understand, of course, why she matters to NBC and the vast commercial enterprise of the Games. The network’s cameras gravitate to American winners, and she is the surest bet. Phelps, now 31, is back in the water after a brief retirement and then a suspension after a second arrest on D.U.I. charges, but he will be entered in fewer events than he raced in his prime — and he won’t be a solid favorite in any of them. 

The American swim team, both the men and the women, looks weaker than it has in past Olympiads, based on the times in Omaha; swimmers like Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin, who starred in past Summer Games, will most likely have to improve their times to compete for gold. Ledecky won three events in Omaha — the 200 freestyle, in which she is likely to be challenged by the Italian star Federica Pellegrini for gold, and the 400 and 800 frees, in which she looks untouchable. She could also win medals in the 4-by-200 freestyle relay and, if coaches place her in it, the 4-by-100 relay.

Her parents zealously protect her time and have rejected requests from the late-night shows — and even NBC Sports and USA Swimming — when they felt it would interfere with her preparation. They attend almost all her meets and will be in Rio, but they avoid attention. Her father often sits in corners of arenas where the TV cameras won’t find him. “You can sit there stoically while she’s swimming or jump up and down,” he says. “You look like an idiot one way or the other.” The family discussed whether she should turn pro, but it was never seriously considered, they say, nor did they really endeavor to attach a number to how much money she might be passing up.

To turn pro at a young age means separating from peers who have gone off to college and instead joining a training group of other professional swimmers, all of them most likely older. There is a risk that an already difficult sport will become a lonely one too. Ledecky is aware, as well, that several female swimmers who turned professional out of high school have experienced steep declines in their performance. “It didn’t really tempt me,” Ledecky says. “Nobody ever told me, ‘You’ll get this certain amount of money if you go pro.’ I don’t know what it would be, but it’s not something that bothers me.”

The decision that Ledecky made was one she could make. The youngest of two children, she has grown up in a fair degree of comfort. Her father is a lawyer, and her mother, Mary Gen, a former college swimmer, worked as a hospital administrator, and they now spend much of their time shuttling their daughter to and from practices. Her older brother graduated from Harvard in May. An uncle, Jonathan Ledecky, is a venture capitalist and co-majority owner of the New York Islanders. Ledecky is an excellent student, and whenever she puts swimming behind her, she should have a Stanford degree to add to what will, in all likelihood, be a display case full of Olympic gold medals.

But there is also the possibility that we are just at the beginning of her reign. Four years ago, Ledecky was the youngest swimmer, male or female, on the American team in London. She will be the youngest again in Rio. And four years from now, at the Summer Games in Tokyo, she will be just 23 and probably still in her prime.

She has said that after this summer, she will probably put more work into the shorter races, including the 100, which she did not qualify for at the trials in Omaha. She could start competing in the 400 individual medley, which combines all four competitive strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle); she ranks among the top Americans in the event even though it has been an afterthought for her. But to continue setting new world records in the distance events, she may need something that’s out of her control — real competitors.

No other woman has ever come within seven seconds of her top time in the 800 freestyle; in the 1,500, the gap is a ridiculous 13 seconds. At the Olympic trials, Leah Smith, an emerging middle-distance swimmer, came within two seconds of her in the 400. She said she was excited because, in her races against Ledecky, “I had never been able to see her feet before.”

Rowdy Gaines, the longtime commentator on NBC’s swim telecasts and himself an Olympic gold medalist, told me that Ledecky is already the most dominant swimmer he has seen in his four decades in the sport, even more so than Phelps. “Michael had rivals, swimmers who could stay at least somewhat close to him,” he said. “In Katie’s best events, she has none. To be fair, they are longer races. But she’s swimming them by herself.”

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