IRVINE, Calif. — After five Olympic gold medals and 14 world records, Katie Ledecky can still tell stories like this.
Last Wednesday, the Stanford sophomore was going to Tresidder Memorial Union in the heart of campus to pick up a FedEx package from her new swimwear sponsor, Tyr.
The package was too big to carry on her bike (Ledecky does not drive a car on campus and has no plans to as she starts her pro career), so she ordered an Uber and waited. Two women approached Ledecky and asked if she was a Stanford student. They needed a picture with one for a scavenger hunt.
Ledecky asked if they got bonus points for getting a picture with an Olympian. The women got their photo, and Ledecky started off to her Uber but stopped herself.
“I’ve kind of been in similar situations in the past, and sometimes I just go along with it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s an Uber driver that asks me what sport I play, and I say swimming. And that’s the end of the conversation. But this time, I don’t know, this day I was just feeling like making these kids’ day or trying to make them smile. So I thought they would get a kick out of it.
“I said, my name is Katie Ledecky, by the way, and they were, ah, thanks,” Ledecky recalled before getting in the Uber. “I think they Googled me or something. And I heard these laughs and screaming, and then I did the tweet.”
The two women replied to her tweet with apologies and praise: “I look up to you so much as I once was a competitive swimmer. We love you so much!”
Ledecky will of course be one of the most recognizable people at Irvine High School this week. She headlines the U.S. Championships from Wednesday through Sunday, a qualifier for the two biggest international meets before the 2020 Olympics — August’s Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo and the 2019 World Championships in South Korea.
Ledecky is not the only star. There are seven-time 2017 World champion Caeleb Dressel and fellow individual Olympic gold medalists Simone Manuel and Lilly King. But Ledecky is the most electrifying athlete, with a chance to break one of her own world records at any meet.
“That’s always what people ask,” her coach, Greg Meehan, said. “She’s got some good goals for the summer, and she’s going to pursue those. I think it falls within the bigger scope of what she’s thinking about for 2020, but as you know, she won’t talk about those goals.”
But there are hints. It’s believed that Ledecky began writing her 2016 goals in code on a pull buoy in 2013.
Meehan said she and Ledecky have already discussed goals for the Tokyo Games, which open two years from Tuesday. They talked about the 200m freestyle world record, 1:52.98, set by Italian Federica Pellegrini in 2009 and the longest-standing women’s mark in the books. Ledecky ranks third all time at 1:53.73.
“We’ve talked about some things,” said Meehan, who holds three formal goal-setting sessions per year with his Stanford swimmers, the most recent in March. “We’ve mostly talked about this summer. Coming out of last year, taking a breath after 2016 and not being really goal-driven in 2017, I think, was the right approach.”
In 2017, Ledecky did not set a personal best in her main events in a calendar year for the first time. She still earned five golds and a silver at worlds following her freshman season for the Cardinal.
In her first post-college race this season, Ledecky took five seconds off her 1500m freestyle world record. An astonishing feat even for her, to do it at a May meet when swimmers can be tired from heavy training. They work to peak in August, not the spring.
“It’s not any easier being me and having the times that I have to go best times,” Ledecky, whose 14 world records are nearly half Michael Phelps‘ total, said Tuesday. “It only gets harder as you get faster.”
That 1500m free was so impressive that Meehan would still consider it a successful 2018 if Ledecky does not set a personal best this week or at Pan Pacs.
“Pardon the language, but shit yes!” he said. “Those records are outrageous.”
Ledecky is scheduled to race Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, but any swimmer who makes the Pan Pacs team in one event can swim any event at Pan Pacs. The pressure is multiple notches lower than an Olympic Trials.
“I want to be my best this summer at Pan Pacs,” Ledecky said of the meet for the world’s top swim nations outside of Europe. “If some of my best swims are at this meet and some are at Pan Pacs, I’ll take that, too.”
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