Photo Courtesy: JD Lasica
Editorial content for the 2018 TYR Pro Swim Series Santa Clara is sponsored by SwimOutlet.com. Visit SwimOutlet.com for more information on our sponsor. For full Swimming World coverage, check out our event coverage page.
By David Rieder.
The 12 flags lined up on deck at the Santa Clara International Swim Center were rippling in the 17 mile-per-hour wind. All over the pool deck, coaches and swimmers were opting for hoodies, parkas and warm-up jackets instead of t-shirts and shorts. Yes, it was a surprisingly chilly June afternoon, even by Bay Area standards.
Not exactly what you would call world record conditions—but Katie Ledecky has made the world believe she can do something special on pretty much any occasion.
Roaming the deck before that Saturday finals session, you heard phrases like, “There’s a shot,” and “50-50” before Ledecky swam in the 800 free final at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Santa Clara. Not from Greg Meehan, though. Ledecky’s coach at Stanford said that he would have been very surprised to see a record fall, even if she has trained as well as she ever has in recent months, even with the recent hot streak she has been on.
“You never really expect records,” Meehan said. “It’s about being process-oriented instead of being results-oriented.”
Certainly, no one expected a record last month in Ledecky’s first race as a professional. Last month in Indianapolis, Ledecky swam a 15:20.48 in the 1500 free for her first world record in almost two years. That out-of-nowhere miracle mile provided a forceful reminder of Ledecky’s ability to unleash at pretty much any time.
During the next few days after that, Ledecky recorded the second-fastest time in history in the 400 free and the third-fastest time ever in the 800 free. In her first final in Santa Clara, Ledecky swam a 1:54.56 in the 200 free, the third-best effort of her career and the 12th-fastest swim in history. The time was faster than the 1:54.73 Federica Pellegrini swam to win last year’s World title and hand Ledecky the first international defeat of her career
Add it all up, and how could anyone really be so surprised to see another world record in Saturday afternoon’s 800, temperature and wind be darned?
But no, not this time. Ledecky of course won easily, but this was no night for a world record. Ledecky merely swam a time of 8:11.08, this one the eighth-fastest time in history. She now owns each of the top 18 swims ever recorded. On this chilly day in Santa Clara, Ledecky swam faster than her 2017 World Championships winning time. No big deal, right?
That hot streak of breaking records? That all happened at the same time Ledecky was signing with agents and finalizing her decision to sign an apparel deal with TYR. Sounds hectic and crazy, right? But Meehan thinks that, ironically, the transition has actually made her life less stressful by getting these big decisions out of the way and removing some of her collegiate team commitments.
“I think, in a lot of ways, going professional is simplifying her life,” Meehan said. “It’s about what’s a best-case scenario for her from a training perspective, living perspective, all the different components of her life, and how can we put things together that are going to give her the opportunity to be great in two years. I think that has really alleviated some stress.”
Somehow, all that was going on outside the pool helped Ledecky’s swimming suddenly click at a level it hadn’t since she came to Stanford. Meehan explained that there had been a slight change in her routine, an extra morning practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays with just Ledecky and fellow pros Simone Manuel and Lia Neal, but that’s it. Everything else was more of the same.
Meehan said that the Ledecky he sees on a day-to-day basis has not changed—“Katie is really consistent. That’s what you love about her, among many other things,” he said—but she has hit her stride in training. He dismissed the idea that she was more focused before considering the possibility that she was more motivated. He nodded at the suggestion of “zeroed in.”
“Is anybody really surprised coming out of 2016 that she was a little bit off? And her “off” year was still five golds and a silver at Worlds,” Meehan said. “I think she was able to allow herself to adapt to the Stanford environment, school, being away from home for the first time—all this stuff without the pressure of having to swim fast. I think she just did her thing and really started getting in a pretty good rhythm this year but certainly since March just totally dialed in.”
Some swimmers struggle with the concept of swimming professionally, where the sport becomes a job. That additional pressure to make a living can weigh some down. Not Ledecky. She shook her head and broke into a smile when asked if swimming felt like a job. “Just continuing to have fun with it,” she said.
What Ledecky does have as a professional is purpose, a stated goal of helping grow the sport, and she explained that she chose TYR in part because that company shares those goals. She was light on specific plans, but she kept coming back to inspiration—inspiring young swimmers just like she had been inspired attending major meets as a child and meeting swimmers like Michael Phelps.
Moments where Ledecky feels she can make a difference in the eyes of a young swimmer are precious for her. Sunday evening in Santa Clara, after her last race of the meet (a 4:00.51 victory in the 400 free), Ledecky could have bolted to study for two upcoming final exams in political science and social psychology. She admitted about those exams, “I’m a little nervous.”
Instead, after she cooled down, Ledecky spent upwards of a half-hour in the seating area surrounded by fans. She patiently signed autographs and took selfies with one child after another.
“It’s a lot of fun to see the excitement and joy in those kids, watching swimming and having fun at the Pro Series meets. It’s always fun giving back like that,” Ledecky said. “I know what an impact it can have, and even if just one of those kids makes it to the Olympic Trials or maybe even the Olympics, that’s something that hopefully they’ll look back on and think that coming to this kind of meet inspired them.”
Sure, swimming might be Katie Ledecky’s job now, but she won’t think of the sport any differently than she did before. Already, in two months, she’s mastered the essence of professional swimming—and, yes, that means that you need to be on record-lookout the next time and any time she’s entered in a race.
Video Interview with Katie Ledecky: