Katie Ledecky: 'Fury' lane

With five Olympic gold medals and 15 World Championship titles to her name, Katie Ledecky is already a swimming legend. What sets her apart from the rest? We find out.

Ledecky was a crowd favourite in Rio and it was her Games all the way without many challenging her dominance in the long-distance events. The road to Tokyo was hard but the actual event might just be harder, given there are challengers snapping at her heels now.   -  GETTY IMAGES

When a 15-year-old girl from the United States outswam an intimidating line of competitors, including defending Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain in the women's 800m freestyle final at the London Olympics, little did the world know that it was being introduced to a swimmer who would dominate the pool like no other.

That erstwhile teenager today has world records in the 400m, 800m and 1500m women's freestyle to her name - Katie Ledecky.

It was then a dream come true for the sophomore from Stone Ridge but not entirely out of the blue, given that she was placed first in the Olympic trials in the 800m event held ahead of the London Games. Her exploits in the English capital were just the beginning though.

READ: Olympics: Top 10 athletes to look out for in Tokyo

Ledecky won five golds at the 2015 World Aquatics Championship, with a dominance that earned her comparisons to another swimming great - her compatriot Michael Phelps. She emulated some of his greatness too, ending the 2016 Rio Games as the most decorated female athlete - with four gold medals (200m, 400m, 800m, 4x200m freestyle relay), one silver (4x100m freestyle relay) and two world records to her name.

Olympic gold medal tally of Katie Ledecky

Gold Medal tally

Events

Timing

1

800m women’s freestyle, 2012 London Olympics

8:14.63

2

200m women’s freestyle, 2016 Rio Olympics

1:53.73

3

400m women’s freestyle, 2016 Rio Olympics

3:56.46

4

800m women’s freestyle, 2016 Rio Olympics

8:04.79

5

4*200m women’s freestyle relay, 2016 Rio Olympics

7:43.03

 

“She’s always pursuing her personal best with fury,” David Marsh, coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s team told the Olympics website. “Where’s the fury coming from? We don’t know, but the stove is running hot.”

Her haul now stands at five Olympic golds and 15 World Championship titles. As she begins her 2020 Tokyo Olympics campaign in the opening weekend, she is competing in four distances (200m, 400m, 800m and the newly introduced 1500m freestyle). More real estate to conquer!

When asked about the possibility of four events being too much to manage, the 24-year-old Olympian said, “I have no plans of dropping anything. Plans could change, but I think I still have a lot in me. I think I’m very experienced swimming in those events. I think I know how to manage my races and manage my energy.”

Her accomplishments and the rate at which they've come have stirred up questions of drug use, but Ledecky is not one to bother.

Focussing on the work it takes to get the records she has, the American is busy setting bigger goals for herself.

READ: Athletes heading to the Tokyo Olympics in world record form

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Ledecky during the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials in June 2021   -  AFP



The Ledecky Routine

“When I was a kid, I would write them down, and I would work toward them, and that’s still pretty much what I do,” Ledecky told Omaha TV.

Besides the rigorous planning, Ledecky also swims for over 10,000m almost every day, spread over two sessions - one each in the morning and evening. That's six hours in the pool dedicated to one goal - excellence.

“One thing about swimming that people don’t really know, is that the work you put in practice shows off in the meet,” she added.

That 'practice' is not restricted to the water. Her routine includes a combination of weightlifting sessions and pilates. Closer to an Olympic edition, this gets more intense, with a closer focus on her diet and strictly sticking to a routine.

"My first swim practice is at 6:15, so I’ll usually wake up 30 minutes prior. Before diving into the pool, I’ll typically have a granola bar or peanut butter toast and a banana. These are great options pre-practice because they give me enough energy to power through an early morning workout, without making me feel too heavy or full," Ledecky told PureWow.

READ: Tokyo Olympics 2020: Five swimmers to watch out for

When practice winds up for a bit around 8am, she goes for a bottle of low-fat chocolate milk - a post-practice favourite since she was 13. Then comes breakfast - scrambled eggs with vegetables with toast or oatmeal with fruits.

She tries to separate this from lunch with a quick nap in between, to help recharge her energy levels. Lunch is simple - a chicken salad, sandwich or wrap and an avocado.

Ahead of the second practice session for the day, energy-giving foods are her go-to - which means options like fresh fruits or yoghurt with granola. After her evening swim, she likes to have some chocolate milk again.

“For dinner, I like to pair chicken or steak with pasta or rice, along with some veggies. I avoid soda and desserts, but if I’m really craving something sweet after dinner, I’ll eat some fruit with honey before going to bed early, usually around 9:30,” she added.

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Ledecky in Budapest (2017)   -  Getty Images

 

Ahead of the pack

So what sets Ledecky apart from the rest?

"Her strength is not in any physical attribute. It’s not even in any particular technique," her coach Bruce Gemmell told Washington Post.

"It’s her overwhelming desire to do what she needs to do to get better," he added.

Nevertheless, her dominance in long-distance swimming is unmissable given that her approach is more of a sprinter's than a traditional distance swimmer's. Despite the usual consensus that sprinting early on may drain the swimmer of their stamina, Ledecky happily proved them wrong in 2012 - staying stable throughout the course of her swim.

READ: Storm brewing on Ledecky's Tokyo Olympic horizon

Whether Ledecky and her team see the difference in her approach or not, there are a few elements in her technique that distinguish her from the field.

Ledecky keeps her body high, to the extent that her hips and upper thighs can often be seen over the surface of the water. That augers well in maintaining balance and stability in the water.

Ledecky gives us proof of the concept herself. She once swam with a cup of chocolate milk on her head - no spilling, no dropping - calling this one of the best swims of her career! It's hard to disagree.

 

She also uses minimal kicks while swimming long distances, which helps stabilise her body position and streamline her swim. However, in the 200m freestyle, she picks up the number of kicks per arm stroke to gain speed.

Ledecky is also mostly seen breathing to a single side, aiding her rhythm during a race. Breathing every two strokes to her right side more often than not sets her apart.

Tokyo's challengers

Ledecky was a crowd favourite in Rio and it was her Games all the way without many challenging her dominance in the long-distance events. The road to Tokyo was hard but the actual event might just be harder, given there are challengers snapping at her heels now. One of them is 20-year-old Australian Ariarne Titmus, who defeated Ledecky in the 400m freestyle at the 2019 World Aquatics Championship in South Korea.

Can the American replicate her Rio exploits? How many more medals will she add to her vault in Tokyo?  One will have to wait and see.

Ledecky will begin her Tokyo Olympics campaign in the  400m freestyle heats on June 25.

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