New Olympic Superstar Katie Ledecky Does Dominance Her Own Way

Greg CouchNational ColumnistAugust 7, 2016

Katie Ledecky broke her own world record by nearly two seconds in the 400-meter freestyle on Sunday night.
Katie Ledecky broke her own world record by nearly two seconds in the 400-meter freestyle on Sunday night.Julian Finney/Getty Images

There's going to be something different about the way Katie Ledecky does this—the way she dominates these Rio Olympics.

This is a star who hasn't wrapped herself up in the hype—that she's swimming's next Michael Phelps, or sports' next Michael Jordan, or really anything. Others in the sport have gotten wrapped up in it, but she hasn't made a big deal of what she's capable of or what she's after. She doesn't have shocking muscles, doesn't gloat, makes no promises about becoming the next great role model.

She just wants to touch the wall at the end of a race, shutting out the noise, the history, her opponents.

That's why you might not have seen it coming. But here it is.

Ledecky is going to hit you. Hard. You're going to get knocked over by her during these Olympics. Her anchor leg as the United States won silver in the 4x100-meter freestyle Saturday was just the start. Shattering her own world record in Sunday's 400-meter freestyle was just a warm-up for a more amazing performance to come this week.

The Sunday night masterpiece was so typical of Ledecky. There was no drama, no competition, really. It was obvious from the first 50 meters that she was going to win gold by a mile, and it didn't take much longer to know she was going to break the world record, too. You don't expect a blowout to be this exciting, but the thrill was just in watching the moment, the historic level of greatness. Ledecky won by 4.77 seconds and broke her previous world-best mark by 1.91 seconds.

She'll shock you the same way she did her friend in high school, Allie Rock. Rock remembers Ledecky as a super-nice, super-considerate girl who once followed her around, an eighth-grader shadowing a high schooler to see what things would be like.

They became friends. Ledecky didn't talk about swimming, and Rock didn't see it coming. Then Rock, a lacrosse star, went to a meet one day because her sister was on the team. And she casually noticed as Ledecky started a race, and...

"OHMYGOSH!" Rock remembers thinking, just the memory of it raising her voice an octave and a few decibels. "She swims faster than I run!"

Rock's unassuming pal is now taking that humble, understated approach to complete and total domination to the Rio Games. The way she'll go about it will make her a role model for a generation. And what a role model they're getting.

OMAHA, NE - JULY 02:  Katie Ledecky of the United States celebrates after finishing first in the final heat for the Women's 800 Meter Freestyle during Day Seven of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CenturyLink Center on July 2, 2016 in Omaha,
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Ledecky is going to redefine the sweetheart cliche, an overdue change.

"Katie Ledecky is the epitome of a strong, beautiful woman, and she is clearly confident in herself," U.S. Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel says.

"When you're confident in how you look, whether you're muscular or you're skinny or you look a certain way—I think if younger people can see people like Serena [Williams] or Katie, people who embrace their athletic body and athletic lifestyle, it's going to catch on.

"People tend to flock toward what other people flock toward. You know, power in numbers."

The numbers for Ledecky say she is already the most dominant athlete in the world. At 19, she has broken world records 12 times. She won Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle when she was 15. She is the world record-holder in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles.

What kind of medal haul is she in for in Rio? Well, she could win three more golds for a total of four. She's a lock in the 800-meter freestyle—she has the 10 fastest times in history—and she's a slight favorite in the 200-meter freestyle. She'll be part of a powerhouse U.S. 4x200-meter freestyle relay. If the women's 1,500 were an Olympic event, she'd have a shot at five golds.

There are two truths about Ledecky: One is that the people who know her have waited patiently to share her with you, and now they just can't wait anymore. That includes people who compete against her, who are in awe of themselves when they finish in the same ZIP code as Ledecky. When it's over, Ledecky hugs them and can't stop talking about them in the post-race press conference.

And the other truth is that people cannot figure out exactly how she is doing this. Where does her magic come from?


'Remarkably Unremarkable'

Her coach, Bruce Gemmell, likes to tell the story that Ledecky couldn't do pushups when he met her. He says that the U.S. Olympic Committee did a workup on Ledecky when she was younger and gave him a book-length analysis of her athletic prospects.

It described her, Gemmell says, this way: "Remarkably unremarkable."

IRVINE, CA - AUGUST 05:  Katie Ledecky and Coach Bruce Gemmell speak during the 2014 Phillips 66 USA National Championships Press Conference at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Complex on August 5, 2014 in Irvine, California.  (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Gett
Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

You are going to see a lot of charts and graphs and talk of Ledecky's "gallop" stroke during these Olympics. And her work ethic. Some have pinned her success on inheriting the latter from her grandparents.

In other words, people are grasping at straws.

"It's just how relentless she is and unsatisfied she is," U.S. Olympic swimmer Connor Jaeger says. "She's set more world records than anyone else in the past four years—probably more than [everyone] else combined—and do you think she's satisfied? No. Not a chance.

"She puts in incredibly hard work. She's strong and has a great stroke—really long, big, strong stroke—that makes her look bigger than she is. She has goals and is just obsessed with those goals. I think we're going to look back in 20 years and say, 'How was she doing that? Man, that's incredible.'"

Part of the magic is that apparently there are two versions of Katie Ledecky—the sweet one out of the water, and the killer in it.

In the water, her single-mindedness surely has something to do with her success. Her teammates, her coach and her brother, Michael, talk about how she never even seems to want to skip practice. She loves the grind.

"It's a grind, but it's something I have a lot of fun with," Katie says. "It's fun to just race in practice so that [I] can get in those situations in races and really take it as far as I can.

"I just try to be consistent in practice, and yeah, I do have a bad day every once in a while. But I've kind of accepted that those happen, and I just come back the next day and try to make it better."

What does a bad day look like to Ledecky?

"Her 'off days' are winning by a lot but not winning a world record," says Maya DiRado, who won silver in the 400-meter individual medley Saturday. "She's just a stud. She just has so much confidence but is also so incredibly humble and kind and normal."


Just Tagging Along

It is amazing how often words like "normal" and "unremarkable" describe the most brutal, dominant athlete in the world.

As one can imagine, when you have a special talent like that, your parents see it in you right away.

Ledecky's parents put her in swimming as a tag-a-long with her brother, Michael. He was nine and Katie six when they joined Palisades Swim Club near their home in Maryland. They only picked that club because one that was closer had too long of a wait list.

Michael went on to swim for Harvard. Katie went on to become the best in the world.

"Yeah, yeah, Palisades Porpoises," Michael says, remembering their team name. "She was going to the meets and watching me. But the next year, as a seven-year-old, she was making the county all-star meet. It was clear from a young age that she was the more talented of the two of us. At the same time, she did play a little copycat there."

Michael would set personal bests one year, and Katie would beat them the next. She wasn't chasing him, though. Ledecky made it a habit to write down goals for her times and place them on her bedside table. She says she is still a notoriously organized goal-setter.

"Probably around the time she was 12, 13 years old, she was beating my times in the distance events and other events," Michael remembers. "I loved watching her go and win, but it was a little tough when she would go out and beat me in a 100-meter freestyle sprint head-to-head.

"She came back from a sectional meet when she was 13, and we swam the 100 freestyle together—just having a little fun doing laps. And she beat me pretty handily. I do remember being a little upset. Threw the goggles off. But the next year, I was starting to brag about her."

He still brags about her. They are particularly close.

"It just comes naturally that she loves it so much," he says. "There just wasn't ever a question of not whether to go to practice. Sometimes with me, during high school, there definitely was. She just had this tenacious drive to do better every day.

"A lot of credit has to go to my parents for putting up with that, too—getting up at 4 a.m. almost every single day to take us to practice. At this point, they've kind of developed a platoon system. They've got it down to a science now."

Michael has a polite and analytical way about him. He makes sure to spread the credit, including to Gemmell and Ledecky's previous coaches. He is careful to be accurate, noting that despite his early recognition of his kid sister's potential, he didn't fully get how good she was.

"At the start of 2012, I thought she might have a semi-legitimate shot at making the Olympic team," he says. "That was my senior year of high school, and I didn't have my head around the idea that she'd be making the team. Even by the time we got to Omaha [for the Olympic trials] four years ago, I thought she had a chance but that it was a coin flip."

By summer's end, Katie was wearing an Olympic gold medal after swimming the second-fastest time ever in the 800 freestyle. She has not lost the race at an international meet since.

Ledecky won Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle as a 15-year-old.
Ledecky won Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle as a 15-year-old.Michael Sohn/Associated Press/Associated Press

Michael should know what to expect as much as anyone.

But the magic surprises even the people closest to her.


In the Realm of Phelps

Ledecky headed into this summer a dominant swimmer, but she was still youthfully exuberant. When she arrived in Omaha in June, she saw a two-story tall banner of herself.

"I took a selfie with it," she says.

She talked about the excitement of being there, being at the pool, seeing what's in the swimmer's gift bag.

Phelps says he remembers having that same excitement. He sees a lot of himself in her—in coming to the pool every day to get better and then breaking records.

OMAHA, NE - JULY 03:  (L-R) Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky of the United States celebrate during Day Eight of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CenturyLink Center on July 3, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

That comparison to Phelps seems to be the talk of the swim world. But maybe Ledecky's old high school buddy Rock has a point when she says, "That's a compliment to Michael Phelps, actually."

This is how Phelps puts it: "It brought me back to what I was like way, way, way back in the day. I don't see it that much anymore, and watching how hungry she is every single day—she is going to try to change something and try to get better."

Ledecky brushes past the comparison.

"Michael has changed the sport," she says. "And it's really cool when you get to swim in front of 14,000 people. I don't know if we would have had that if we didn't have Michael. So, just to be on a team with him is a great honor."

Ledecky can brush past the comparison, but it's going to be part of her world for years to come.

Consider this: At the 2028 Olympics, Ledecky would be the same age, 31, as Phelps is now. If Ledecky were to win four golds in Rio, she would have five in her career. No woman in any sport has won more than nine gold medals in her career, and Ledecky could have three more Olympics in which to destroy that record.

But she says she doesn't think about her spot in history. She says that's the media's job. Her job is to touch the wall.


Greg Couch covers the Olympics for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch.


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