When Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky, arguably the world’s two best female swimmers, were suddenly, indefinitely without a pool three months before the Olympic Trials, a 71-year-old hall of fame masters swimmer offered to help.
In March 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., Manuel and Ledecky were shut out as their state-of-the-art training facilities at Stanford closed. All of the public pools in the area did the same. The Olympics, at that point, were still scheduled for July 2020. The Olympic Trials were slated for that June.
Other swimmers, either Stanford student-athletes or post-graduates, traveled home. Ledecky and Manuel, NCAA champions for the Cardinal who turned professional in 2018, stayed.
“We were scrambling to find any water because the reality was the trials were going to be in about 12, 13, weeks,” said Greg Meehan, who coaches Stanford’s women’s team as well as post-grads including Ledecky and Manuel. “If we get stuck without being in water for a month or six weeks or something, it’s just not going to go well. I had thought a lot about what happens if we don’t find water. I was trying connections everywhere.”
The first two days, they found a club pool in nearby Menlo Park. They drove up to rival Cal-Berkeley on March 17, Ledecky’s 23rd birthday, before those doors shut.
The duo spent the next two days out of the pool. Meehan knew a friend of a friend in Florida with their own facility, but did it make sense to fly across the country and possibly get stuck there?
Meehan, coach of the reigning NCAA champions and the Olympic team head coach, had no other leads. But Ted Knapp, who spent 35 years on the Stanford men’s coaching staff, knew a guy.
Tod Spieker, a former UCLA All-American, 1968 Olympic Trials backstroker and decorated masters swimmer, lives two miles from campus. Spieker and wife Cathy, for whom UCLA’s aquatics center is named, have a two-lane, 25-yard backyard pool. One lane for each of Meehan’s swimmers.
“I called Tod,” Meehan said. “I don’t think at the time I envisioned us being there for the better part of three months.”
Manuel, Ledecky and Meehan pulled up separately to the Spiekers’ driveway in Atherton for the first time on March 20 or March 21 (the Olympics were postponed to 2021 on March 24).
They went around the house, through a gate and onto a veranda patio out back for swim practice. They repeated the process six days a week until mid-June, when Stanford re-opened. They were very conscious of social distancing.
“I don’t think they ever set foot in the house,” said Spieker, who was out of town for the first few weeks. “I think one time Greg snuck in to use the bathroom.”
The pool checked all the boxes. It had backstroke flags, synchronized pace clocks at both ends and starting blocks. Meehan called the setup “a 10 out of 10” under the circumstances.
“There’s no way I could have lived with myself by denying them use of a pool that satisfied their needs,” Spieker said.
Of all the practices, Meehan will most remember what he called the “death by relay” set. Manuel and Ledecky took turns swimming, one racing while the other rested, for nearly a half-hour.
“The sense of accomplishment and partnership through that particular day was really cool to see,” Meehan said. “I think that was something they’ll both remember as well.”
Ledecky and Manuel, who were Olympic roommates, then Stanford teammates, developed bonds with the Spiekers’ grandchildren who sometimes visited. They brought them swim caps.
“It was more than just a pool for them at that point,” Meehan said. “It was an opportunity for normalcy amid all the chaos that was going on in the world.”
Meanwhile, the U.S.’ other top swimmers made do around the country. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where they often gather for altitude training camps, closed. As did major colleges and universities that host elite post-graduate training cadres.
A Berkeley group including Olympic gold medalists Nathan Adrian and Ryan Murphy went across the San Francisco Bay to the Ann Curtis School of Swimming for three months. (Cal’s Spieker Aquatics Complex was named after and largely funded by Spieker’s brother, a former Cal water polo player.)
The swim school, with a three-foot deep, four-lane pool, was built and owned by Curtis, a 1948 Olympic swimming champion and Cal alum who died in 2012. Adrian and former Cal teammate Will Copeland bought it in 2019 — while Adrian was coming back from cancer treatment — to save it from being shut down and potentially demolished.
Caeleb Dressel, the U.S.’ top male swimmer who trains at the University of Florida, drove 45 minutes south to a pool in Ocala and lifted weights in his strength coach’s garage. Lilly King, the Olympic and world champion and world-record holder in the 100m breaststroke, at one point swam in an Indiana subdivision pond.
All of the top Americans convene in two months in Omaha for the Olympic Trials, which start exactly one year after Manuel and Ledecky’s last practice in the Spiekers’ pool. Manuel, the world’s top sprinter, and Ledecky, the top distance swimmer, could combine for more than 10 medals in Tokyo.
They never would have thought a backyard pool in Atherton would have helped them get there. How much it aided is impossible to say, but consider the very possible alternative of no pool at all for three months.
Not having the Spiekers’ backyard “would have mattered,” Meehan said. “It wasn’t three months of the greatest training of their life, but it was enough to keep the engine running.”
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