By Paige Caine
Creative Writing Director
Nineteen-year old swimmer Katie Ledecky shocked the world at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, breaking her own world record and scoring four gold medals, but her inspirational road to success stretches back much farther than 800m in the pool.
Born in Washington D.C in 1997, Ledecky began swimming at just six years old after her mother, a former competitive swimmer herself, signed both her and her brother up for the Palisades swim team in an effort to help them make friends. Back then, she wasn’t very good, and had a reputation for stopping and holding onto the lane lines mid-race to rest. Ledecky’s goal that summer was to finish one complete length of the pool without stopping.
Unfortunately, she got swimmer's ear the day before her final meet and was told by her doctor she wouldn’t be allowed to swim, but Ledecky was stubborn. After much crying, she persuaded the doctor to allow her to compete, as long as she stuffed cotton in her ears. That was the first time Katie Ledecky achieved one of her swimming goals.
Since then, she would write all of her goals on paper and put them up in her room. She doesn’t do this anymore, but the five time Olympic Gold Medalist admits to still writing down “swimming wants” and storing them somewhere secret, according to Vogue.
Flash forward nine years, and Ledecky is the youngest swimmer at the 2012 Olympic qualifiers, eventually winning gold in London. A year later, she broke the women’s 1500m freestyle world record by accident, attempting to follow her coach’s instructions to take the first 900 easy, push for 300, and finish however she liked.
Now, Ledecky is waking up at 4 am six days a week to practice from 5 to 7 in the pool, squeezing in a dryland workout from 11 to noon, and hitting the pool again from 3:30 to 6.
Not only is she known for winning gold, Ledecky also has a reputation for beating the men training in the lanes beside her. One of the reasons some claim Ledecky is able to beat so many male athletes is the fact that, according to 2012 Olympian Connor Jeagar, “she swims like a man.” This comment has been repeated by many, and often provokes a lot of feminist backlash. After all, “she doesn’t swim like a man,” insisted NBC Commentator Rowdy Gaines, “she swims like Katie Ledecky.”
Though the comment sounds degrading, implying that only men can swim as fast as she does, it actually refers only to her technique. Her stroke style uses a long left stroke, followed by a short right, long left, and a short right, rather than the traditional even stroke used by most female swimmers. However, this style, often referred to as a “gallop,” is very common among men, because it requires a much larger amount of core muscle strength.
Still, while this sexist controversy can be chalked up to a simple misunderstanding, Ledecky faced many other gender equality challenges in Rio. One of the most touted examples of sexism in sports this year would be the Associated American Press Headline, “Phelps ties for Silver in 100 fly,” followed by a subheading of “Ledecky sets World Record in Women’s 800 freestyle,” even though the female athlete’s accomplishment was considered by most to be much more impressive. But Ledecky and Phelps have both done as much as possible to remain equals, posing side by side on the cover of Sports Illustrated with gymnast Simone Biles as well as staging a moment where Phelps asked Ledecky for her autograph.
But there’s more to Ledecky than the fact that she’s never lost an international competitive race, or that she beat her next runner up in the 2016 Olympic women’s 800m freestyle by a full 11 seconds. According to her coach, her most distinguishing feature is that “she’s a better person than she is a swimmer.”
In her team bio on the USA Swimming official website, Ledecky lists volunteering as one of her hobbies, alongside scrabble, piano, and chess. She’s known for being the swimmer that always stays to watch her teammates race, and even stayed up until 2 am the night before her record-breaking 800m race to congratulate her roommate, Simone Manuel, on a victory the day before in the 100m freestyle.
With the Olympics over, Ledecky will return home and start college at Stanford in the fall, but the world should continue to expect great things from this swimmer.