Katie Ledecky is one of the best athletes the world has ever seen. Not just in swimming, but across all sports, she’s considered one of the greatest of all time.
After exploding onto the scene as a teenager, the American swimmer claimed the distance swimming throne, and this distance queen hasn’t given it up since!
Katie is considered a dominant force in every freestyle event ranging from the 200 up to the mile. She beats her competitors by multiple body lengths — sometimes even 25 meters or more. She’s so good, that in nearly every race, it’s Katie against herself.
Over the years she has won multiple Olympic medals, dozens of world championship medals and broken too many world records to count.
Her dominance is often compared with Michael Phelps, but Katie is in a league of her own. She has built her own legacy that will go down in swimming history for decades to come.
Today we’re going to break down Katie Ledecky’s incredible swimming career, her training philosophy, and what makes her so dominant in the water!
The Early Years
Let’s start from the beginning.
Swimming is in Katie’s blood. Growing up in Maryland, she started swimming at age 6, following in her older brother Michael’s footsteps. The siblings chose to join a local summer swim league to make new friends. And that was the catalyst that kicked off Katie’s love for the sport.
Early on, it became clear that Katie was a swimming prodigy. She loved racing, and eventually convinced her parents to let her swim year-round. They carted her to 5am swim practices, spent hours cheering her on at meets, and helped her find the right team to nurture her incredible skill.
Related: Analyzing Katie Ledecky’s Freestyle Technique
Katie trained with Nation’s Capital Swim Club in the Washington, D.C. area throughout high school. During this time, she crushed 9 swim workouts per week and averaged about 60 to 70,000 yards total.
Katie’s high school experience was a trip…One day, she might be racing at a high school meet, beating her competitors by 30 seconds or more in the 500 freestyle. The next, she’d be competing at the TYR Pro Series, racing against the world’s top swimmers and throwing down world record times.
In 2015, Katie finished her high school swimming career with the school record in every swimming event except the 100 breaststroke. And an Olympic medal, but more on that later.
2012 Olympic Games
Katie’s intense training schedule paid off. In 2012, at age 15, Katie made a splash at the U.S. Olympic Trials. She was the youngest swimmer at the meet!
She made the Olympic team in the 800-meter freestyle, finished 3rd in the 400 free and ninth in the 200 free. Not too shabby…
When she made her international debut at the 2012 London Olympic Games, she gave us a glimpse of what was to come.
Related: How to Swim the 200 & 400 Free Like Katie Ledecky
In the women’s 800 free final, Katie surprised us all, taking gold by over 4 seconds and breaking the American record that had stood since 1989. What a way to come on the scene!
However, if you talk to Katie’s coach Bruce Gemmell — and Katie herself — you’d hear a different story about how the race unfolded.
Did Katie win? Sure. But did she swim the race the right way? Not quite. She went out too fast, and let her adrenaline take over.
And that made a lot of people wonder…what was she capable of if she swam her best race?
Well, they were about to find out.
Over the next 3 years, Katie threw down some insane races. She broke the 1500 free world record 5 times, the 800 free world record 3 times, and the 400 free world record once in this time frame. That’s more than some pro swimmers do in their entire careers!
Most memorably, Katie dropped 6 seconds off her 1500 world record at 2014 Pan Pacs. She lapped 3 of her competitors in the final and finished 27 seconds ahead of the second-place swimmer. US National Team Director Frank Busch said Katie’s performance was the most impressive race he had ever seen. And we believe it!
At the 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, Katie won gold in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 freestyles. She’s the first swimmer to do so in a major competition.
2016 Olympic Games
After some stellar performances in early 2016, Katie was ready for the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She qualified for the 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyle events.
And, in no surprise to anyone, world records continued to be the theme of Katie’s Rio run.
She kicked off her individual events with a world record — and a gold medal — in the 400 free, breaking her previous record by 2 seconds and finishing 5 seconds ahead of silver medalist Jazz Carlin.
In the 800, Katie beat Jazz again, this time by 11 seconds. She set another world record, finishing in 8:04.79 and bagging another gold medal.
She also won gold in the 200 free, out-touching Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström with a personal best of 1:53.73.
Katie was the first swimmer to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 free in the Olympics since 1968! After winning gold in the 800 free relay and silver in the 400 free relay, Katie was the second most decorated athlete at the 2016 Olympics, behind Michael Phelps.
NCAA Swimming Career
After a historic Olympic performance, Katie turned her focus to college. She started her freshman year at Stanford in 2016, and competed for the Cardinal swim team for 2 seasons. And she just kept on winning.
She won 8 national titles, leaving behind NCAA records in the 500, 1000, 1650, 400 free relay and 800 free relay. As a college athlete, she broke 11 American records and 15 NCAA records. Par for the course for Katie Ledecky.
Her success translated to international competition, too. At the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Katie added 5 gold medals and 1 silver medal to her collection, breaking the record for most World Championships medals won by a female swimmer.
In 2018, Katie decided to go pro, and gave up her final 2 years of NCAA eligibility.
She still trained with her Stanford teammates, but going pro allowed her to take advantage of lucrative sponsorship deals. She inked a 6-year, $7 million contract with swimsuit maker TYR.
Related: How Much Money Do Olympic Swimmers Make?
She capped off her pro announcement by breaking her 1500 free world record yet again…this time by 5 seconds!
In 2018, she also graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine…she’s the first Olympic swimmer to do it!
2020 Olympic Games
When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt and caused the 2020 Summer Olympics to be postponed a full year, many swimmers were devastated. Katie kept her eyes on the prize, getting creative with training and keeping a positive attitude. While her training conditions weren’t optimal, she used the extra year to work hard and get better, and that hard work paid off.
At the 2021 US Olympic Trials, Katie qualified for the 200, 400, 800 and 1500-meter freestyle events.
Mental Training & Goal Setting
These days, the public has come to know Katie as the swimmer who always delivers a stellar performance. And Team USA gold medalist Simone Manuel has said that when Katie swims, people expect something great. How does Katie keep cool under all that pressure?
Long story short, she’s laser focused.
She honed this focus with the help of her coach, Bruce Gemmell. Each year, he and Katie sit down and set big goals. According to Katie, if your goals don’t scare you a little, you’re doing it wrong!
Related: How to Set SMART Goals
After setting her goals, Katie keeps them to herself. In 2013, Katie and Bruce had their eyes set on a 3:56 for the 400-meter free and 8:05 for the 800-meter free. Katie wrote “565” on her pull buoy, to keep those goal times at the front of her mind. Her teammates had no idea what the numbers meant. That they were reminding Katie every day what she was capable of.
When she began to out-pace many of the female swimmers on her team, she started training with faster male swimmers leading up to Rio.
It worked — she hit both goal times!
It also helps that Katie enjoys long swim sets. Bruce says Katie loves the mind-numbing monotony of distance swimming. The continuous back and forth, staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool. And she does a lot of that.
She swims doubles on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and just once on Mondays and Saturdays. And then there’s dryland training a few times a week, too.
Related: Katie Ledecky’s Training Schedule
Katie gives her all in every session, making the most of every rep and every set. Challenging herself to push past her limits and leaving it all in the pool. Even on tough days, she keeps her head up, knowing that it’s all part of the process.
She powers through the water with incredible fortitude and her technique, while efficient, is often a mystery to many, as she swims with a higher tempo and average stroke rate than most of her competitors.
From her incredible work ethic and her fierce competitiveness to her mind-blowing speed and impressive longevity, it’s safe to say that Katie Ledecky will go down in history as one of the greatest swimmers to ever do it.
And the best part? Her story is still being written.