Katie Ledecky was one of the most triumphant athletes of the Rio Olympics. The 19-year-old swimmer overwhelmed her competition; in the 800-meter race, she finished nearly a pool length ahead of second place. Known for relentless training and humility, she will forego endorsement deals to attend Stanford University this fall. Margaret Warner met her in Bethesda, Maryland, at her high school pool.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a conversation with one of the biggest stars of this summer’s Olympics, gold-medal-winning swimmer Katie Ledecky, about what’s behind her success.
Margaret Warner sat down with her earlier today.
MARGARET WARNER: She’s been likened to a Lamborghini, to a hard-charging swimming machine.
Katie Ledecky, the freestyle phenom, won five medals in Rio, four gold, one silver. Also remarkable is her dominance in her sport. In this 800-meter race in Rio, for example, her closest competitor was nearly a pool-length away.
Ledecky’s Olympic debut came at age 15 in the 2012 London Games, when she defeated the favorite, a British gold medalist, to win the 800. Now 19, she repeatedly breaks world records, usually her own.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MARGARET WARNER: Ledecky is known not just for her relentless training, more than four hours a day, but for her friendliness, calm and modesty.
Amid the celebrations since her return to Washington, last night, she threw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals Game.
MAN: Oh, great pitch.
MARGARET WARNER: Now she’s taking an unusual path for such a proven winner, retain her amateur status, attend Stanford this fall, and pass for the moment on millions of dollars of endorsement deals.
We got together today at the pool where she competed in high school, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland.
Katie Ledecky, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
KATIE LEDECKY, Olympic Gold Medalist: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: Or letting us join you at your old stomping ground here.
Something that struck me watching you swim, but also out of the pool, is just this joy you seem to radiate.
KATIE LEDECKY: I have always loved swimming. I started swimming when I was 6 years old for a summer league swim team. And they made it really fun right from day one. And I never really looked back.
I started swimming year-round, and did it with my family, with my friends, and just have gotten to meet so many great people through swimming.
MARGARET WARNER: And I was surprised to see that, in 2012, when you went to the Olympic training camp, they gave you some elite athlete tests just on your physical abilities. And it came back saying remarkably unremarkable.
MARGARET WARNER: What does that mean?
KATIE LEDECKY: I’m not ridiculously tall for swimmers. I don’t have very big hands. I don’t have very big feet, nothing really unusual.
I think it’s just been hard work that’s gotten me to where I am today. It wasn’t a lot of talent, really. It was more getting through the work and setting some big goals that has gotten me to this point.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you enjoy working hard?
KATIE LEDECKY: I do. And it’s fun when you get to do it with some of your best friends. And that’s what I have loved. I have just loved setting big goals and trying to reach towards them.
So, a couple of years ago, my coach, Bruce Gemmell, and I sat down and set some goals. And at the time, they seemed pretty big, but I reached them all in Rio, and that’s the best feeling.
MARGARET WARNER: And the goals are about not beating someone else, but about times.
KATIE LEDECKY: Right.
My goals for Rio were to go 3:56 or better in the 400 free, and I went 3:56, to go 8:05 or better in the 800 free, and I went 8:04. And then the third goal was to win the 200 free. And I did that. So, I matched all my goals.
And at the time, three years ago, those seemed pretty far out there.
MARGARET WARNER: To what degree are you competing with others vs. yourself?
KATIE LEDECKY: You are always racing against the other swimmers, but I always try to just focus on what I’m doing and how I want to swim my races.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you checking out what’s going on in the other lanes?
KATIE LEDECKY: I sometimes do.
And if I’m ahead, I can sometimes tell. It might mean I’m having a good swim, but pretty much, I’m just focused on how fast I’m going, how fast I’m feeling, and pretty much block everything out, the sounds, the sights, just kind of listen to the rhythm of the water, and just maintaining the same stroke, the same rhythm, the same tempo, and thinking about how I want to get my hand to the wall.
MARGARET WARNER: David Marsh, who is the coach of the whole U.S. team, Olympic team, said you had an intensity that he’d never seen in a distance athlete, and that you were fearless.
Another coach of yours said that, put you at the beginning of a race, and you’re like a bull in a stall waiting to get out.
Where does that come from?
KATIE LEDECKY: I don’t know.
I think I have always loved the competitiveness of swimming. And I have just had that outlet from since I was 6 years old. But I think it’s something that’s developed over time, too. As I have gotten faster and I have come down to some of the shorter races, the sprint events, I have always just tried to have that mind-set of attacking each race and really treating each race, no matter how long it is, as a true race.
MARGARET WARNER: And that’s why you don’t pace yourself, the way a lot of coaches would advise you to do?
KATIE LEDECKY: Right. Yes. I like to think of it more as racing than pacing.
MARGARET WARNER: A lot of top athletes, especially when they reach even near the pinnacle you have, talk about the pressure they feel, and that they feel anxiety to perform. Do you ever feel that?
KATIE LEDECKY: No, I don’t.
I always just focus on what my own goals are, and not what anybody else’s goals for me are or their expectations. I just know that my family will always be supporting me and my friends and my coaches. And as long as I put in the hard work and know that I’m giving it my best effort, I will always be happy.
MARGARET WARNER: There is a lot of comment about your swimming style, and that your coach at, what were you, at 12 or 13 changed your style, so that you could swim really more like Michael Phelps. It’s been called a half-gallop.
Explain that is and what advantage it gives you.
KATIE LEDECKY: Yes, it’s kind of a stroke we found is the most efficient for me. And it’s the fastest stroke for me. And I think it was just utilizing my strength to the best.
MARGARET WARNER: But what does it consist of?
KATIE LEDECKY: It’s just more of a loping stroke, and it’s using my kick more than most female distance swimmers use. So, I’m just kicking a lot more and getting a lot of power out of my hips and out of my stroke.
And I have a really good catch with my arms. And so it’s just kind of putting all those things together.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have always, recently, practiced with men. And one male athlete said that other male athletes were actually “broken” — quote, unquote — by having to swim against you.
How did you feel about that?
KATIE LEDECKY: I don’t really pay attention to it. I just — you know, when there is a swimmer next to me, I try to race that swimmer, no matter the gender.
And, you know, I try to give the guys a run. They need someone to push them, too. And it helps me, and hopefully it helps them as well.
MARGARET WARNER: There was also a lot of commentary during the Olympics about sexist comments they were seeing about female athletes. And one of the examples was the commentators who said Katie Ledecky swims like a man.
Did you found that sexist or offensive?
KATIE LEDECKY: Well, I think Rowdy Gaines actually said something like: Katie Ledecky doesn’t swim like a man. She swims like Katie Ledecky.
And that was a good comment. I swim the way I swim. And I take it as a compliment when somebody says I swim like a man, because, as you said, my stroke is kind of taken after what some of the male freestylers have done. But I’m just trying to go as fast as I can go.
MARGARET WARNER: So, now you’re onto Stanford, NCAA swimming. You’re not going professional. I have heard estimates from $5 million to $15 million you could be making a year.
Did you even consider that? What went into your decision not to go pro?
KATIE LEDECKY: No, I didn’t consider it at all, really.
I have always wanted to swim collegiately and have that experience. And I can’t wait to be a part of the Stanford team. And I can’t wait to just be swimming with them and going to class with them and enjoying that whole experience.
MARGARET WARNER: So, if a 6-year-old or 7-year-old or 8-year-old girl were watching you in the Rio Olympics and said to herself, I want to be the next Katie Ledecky, what advice would you give her?
KATIE LEDECKY: Yes, I would encourage her to set some big goals, because I never dreamed I would go to the Olympics when I was 6, 7 or 8 years old.
I just started setting goals. And all of a sudden, when I was 14 years old, my next goal was to make the Olympics. And I never imagined it. And I never imagined I would come away with medals and be able to travel the world and swim.
And it’s been such a great experience. And I hope that young girls will have that dream and will have experiences. And it might not be in swimming. It might be in something else. But I found a passion, and I love it. It’s something I love and something I enjoy. It’s something I’m good at. And it’s what I have been able to give 100 percent to.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Katie, you’re certainly an inspiration to that young girl and all of us.
KATIE LEDECKY: Thanks.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you so much.
KATIE LEDECKY: Thank you.
HARI SREENIVASAN: One Olympic postscript of a very different tone.
Late today, Brazilian police charged American swimmer Ryan Lochte with filing a false police report. Lochte said he and three teammates were robbed at gunpoint during the Rio Olympics. Brazilian police said no such crime took place. Investigators have asked that Lochte be deposed in the United States.