ATLANTA (AP) — Katie Ledecky’s life has changed so much over the past year.
She’s living on her own for the first time, on the opposite side of the country from her tight-knit family. She’s got a new coach and new teammates. She’s a full-fledged college student now – stimulated by her studies, excited about meeting different people, fully embracing the idea of being all grown up.
“The year’s gone by fast,” Ledecky said.
She’s used to going fast in the pool.
Nothing’s changed there.
After leading Stanford to its first NCAA women’s national title since 1998, capturing three individual events and taking a turn on two winning relays, Ledecky has turned her attention to this summer’s world championships in Budapest, Hungary.
“There have kind of been phases throughout the year, different things to look forward to, that I’ve kind of kept my eye on, which has kept me very motivated,” the 20-year-old Ledecky said during a recent interview in Atlanta, where she won three events at a grand prix meet.
Now that Michael Phelps has retired again, Ryan Lochte is serving a suspension for his antics in Rio de Janeiro and Missy Franklin faces the daunting challenge of bouncing back from a disappointing Olympics, Ledecky is the undisputed star of the mighty U.S. program.
She doesn’t seem the least bit burdened by the prospect of having the swimming spotlight all to herself heading into the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“I don’t really think of it in those terms at all,” Ledecky said. “Just taking things step by step, focusing on my own goals, and not letting anything else get to me has always been what I’ve done a good job of and what I need to continue to do moving forward.”
College life certainly agrees with her.
Ledecky has just a few weeks left in her freshman year at Stanford, a move that took her away from her home in the Washington suburbs.
She hasn’t decided on a major, signing up for classes ranging from psychology (“How Beliefs Create Reality,” which seems especially relevant in today’s world) to Greek art history to a course on sleep and dreams taught by renowned researcher William Dement.
“I’ve loved it,” Ledecky said. “I’ve had a great first year, taken some really great classes, met some pretty amazing people, and it’s been a great environment in the pool, in my dorm and in school.”
After a stellar performance at the Rio Olympics last summer, where she won four gold medals and a silver while obliterating a pair of world records, Ledecky was home for about three weeks.
Then she headed off to college.
The timing of the move worked out perfectly, according to Stanford coach Greg Meehan.
“Oftentimes after the games, there will be a lull for these athletes coming out of the Olympics,” he explained. “Sometimes, during that down time, they can have that post-Olympic depression. But I think moving into a new environment, being excited about some new challenges, that really helped with the transition. That kept things moving, kept things fresh and exciting.”
For many athletes, a coaching change can be rather jarring.
Not so for Ledecky, who’d already been through it once before. After Ledecky won a surprising gold at the 2012 London Games, her coach, Yuri Suguiyama, left for a job on the West Coast. Ledecky switched the Bruce Gemmell and soared to even greater heights in Rio.
From all indications, the transition to Meehan has gone just as smoothly.
He’s worked to tweak a few things in her technique, training and race strategy, but there’s certainly no need for a major overhaul.
“She’s already achieved levels in this sport that, outside of Michael, no one else has gotten to,” Meehan said. “Michael was more dominant in the spread of events he could cover. He’s the most amazing swimmer I’ve ever seen. But I think Katie is much more dominant in her (freestyle) events. So there is a little bit of a sense of what’s next, if she’s already doing the things she’s doing?”
This new partnership has required them both to be open-minded.
“This is only year one,” Meehan said. “We’re continuing to learn each other and push the envelope in some ways. We’ll get through this year and next year, then we’ll start looking at big-picture goals.”
The freestyle will certainly remain her focus, with an eye toward getting faster in the 100 meters. Ledecky isn’t sure she’ll ever be able to compete for an individual gold in that event, but she wants to remain a part of the 4x100m relay team that took the silver in Rio with her swimming the anchor leg.
While Ledecky must still go through the formality of qualifying for the world championship team next month in Indianapolis, she will surely be a favorite to repeat her victories in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m free, in addition to competing on a pair of relay teams.
“I don’t focus on outdoing myself,” Ledecky said. “I’ve just got to focus on what I want to achieve and not let anything else stand in my way.”
Seems her approach to swimming hasn’t changed a bit.
Something else sounds familiar, too.
Ledecky still doesn’t have a driver’s license.
“Maybe this summer,” she said with a smile, not sounding all that persuasive.
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