How Katie Ledecky Conquered the Most Ambitious Swim Schedule in Olympic History
When Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky returned to the pool this summer for her third Games, she took on her most grueling schedule yet: a never-before attempted distance of 6,200 meters of total swimming—nearly twice the distance that Michael Phelps swam in his record-breaking 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The endurance test was worth the battle as Ledecky emerged from Tokyo with four medals, including gold in the first-ever women’s Olympic 1,500-meter freestyle and her third straight Olympic gold in the 800-meter freestyle. With a total of six, Ledecky has won the most individual gold medals of any female swimmer in history. (Her total gold count, including relays, is seven.) Her 10 total Olympic medals put her behind only Natalie Coughlin, Jenny Thompson, and Dara Torres—each of whom has 12 medals—for the most among female swimmers.
But Ledecky could surpass them when all is said and done, as she plans to return to the Olympic Games in 2024 and maybe 2028. What she isn’t so sure about is whether she’ll narrow her focus to a specialty distance like the 1,500 meters or continue to enter four events at the championships.
“I may have to decide as the years go on as I progress as an athlete,” Ledecky tells SELF after the Tokyo Games, “and determine what I want to do to put myself in the best position moving forward to represent Team USA at the level I hope to perform at.”
For now, her focus is on celebrating another successful Olympic Games and taking time to relax and unwind with family and friends in her native Bethesda, Maryland. One thing she’s looking forward to is hitting up her favorite restaurants in the D.C. area for a visit and treating her friends and family—with her Wells Fargo Active Cash Card, now that she’s partnered with Visa—to their meals.
One in particular she can’t wait to get back to? Ize’s Deli in Rockville, Maryland. When Ledecky was in high school, her mom ordered her the same post-swim-practice omelette so many times that the deli ended up naming the dish after her, she tells SELF. Even at that time, Ledecky knew the importance of fueling her body adequately—and deliciously—for the intense workouts that were vital to her success in the pool.
Over the years, Ledecky has honed in on what works for her and what she needs to do to stay at the top of her sport—guidelines of sorts which she’s continued to employ during competitions. SELF got all the details from Ledecky on how she was able to take on the most grueling swim schedule in Olympics history—and come out on top.
1. Perfect the pre-race routine.
Though she’s only 24, Ledecky is now a USA Swimming veteran with three Olympic Games appearances under her belt. Knowing what to expect at a major international championship makes a world of difference for athletes, who can be very attached to their regular routines.
Tokyo, however, threw a wrench in that regularity, as the swimming events operated on a reverse schedule than championships do typically: The preliminary rounds were in the evening and the finals in the morning to coincide with the primetime broadcast window in the United States.
A change to a tried-and-true routine can be stressful, which makes developing—and sticking to—a consistent pre-race schedule even more important. Ledecky says to prepare for her morning finals, she made sure to wake up three or four hours before her race to get her bag ready and start hydrating. For breakfast, she ate oatmeal with a banana, two eggs, fruit, and bread. Then she headed over to the pool with ample time to prepare, as early as two and a half hours before her race.
“I build in some time for the bus to be late,” she says. “You want to be careful about that at the Olympics.”
About 60 to 90 minutes before the race, she’d warm up in the pool, change into her racing suit, then get back in the pool for another short warm-up about 30 minutes before her call time—the last stop before the race itself, when athletes check in at the ready room.
2. Streamline the recovery process.
To successfully tackle record-setting swimming yardage, Ledecky leans big on recovery.
Immediately following a race, she refuels with chocolate milk, a rich source of protein and carbs, plus water for hydration and some kind of energy or granola bar.
Then she’ll start her “warm-down,” which takes 20 to 30 minutes and includes 1,000 to 1,500 meters of “really easy swimming,” she says.
Ledecky tries to eat a full meal about an hour after the race. In Tokyo, the athletes actually had their meals ready for them at the pool, so they could eat their dinner before they hopped back on the bus or on their ride back to the Olympic Village. That, says Ledecky, helped cut down on wasted time and allowed her to get some extra minutes of much-needed sleep.
Other than making sure to eat and hydrate during this post-race window, Ledecky says she doesn’t follow any specific dietary guidelines.
“I just go based on feel and I want to make sure I’m never hungry,” she says. “You want to stay ahead of any hunger that you might feel.”
3. Focus on what’s next—not what already happened.
A packed swim schedule can mean tons of races to ruminate on. But that kind of thinking, as Ledecky learned, can take away from the focus you need to direct at what’s right in front of you.
“I try to take it one race at a time and not think too far ahead,” she says.
That mindset was especially vital in Ledecky’s toughest stretch in Tokyo: the 70-minute turnaround between the 200-meter freestyle final and the 1,500-meter freestyle final.
It was a quick amount of time to physically recharge, and Ledecky couldn’t waste any of that time on unhealthy rumination. In the 200 meters, Ledecky finished a disappointing fifth, while her rival—Australia’s Ariarne Titmus—won gold. The day before, in the 400-meter freestyle, Ledecky earned silver to Titmus’s gold. (Back in 2016, it was Ledecky who took home that double gold.)
Ledecky had to find a way to refocus on the 1,500 meters and the chance to win a historic first Olympic medal in the event.
“After the first race, I shift my mindset to the second race almost immediately,” she says. “Whether the first race goes really well or not as well as I would have hoped, I know that I have to move on from it really quickly and approach the second race like it’s my first of that day and my only race of that day.”
Not only did Ledecky, who is the world record holder in the event, successfully dominate the race, but she also led a 1-2 U.S. sweep with fellow American Erica Sullivan.
“It was really special,” she says of her historic gold medal victory. “I definitely was thinking of all the female U.S. swimmers that hadn’t had that opportunity [to race the 1,500 meters at the Olympics], and we wanted to get Team USA started on the best possible note for that race.”
4. Lean into the joy and power of camaraderie.
When asked to name her favorite Olympic moment, Ledecky doesn’t mention her 1,500-meter freestyle gold or her 800-meter three-peat, which was her very last race of these Games.
Instead, she talks about hanging out in the pool with her relay teammates and lingering over dinner in the Olympic Village.
“There were so many rookies on the team, so it was really fun to get to know them, and I already miss them,” she says, referring to the nearly dozen teenage swimmers on the team who made their Olympic debut in Tokyo.
The Stanford alum says that personal connection and team energy makes relay finals a more “relaxing” experience than diving off the blocks for an individual event, and she’s learned to harness that feeling to bring about even more power to her racing.
“There’s so much excitement and energy,” she says of relays. “We’re having a lot of fun behind the blocks together, and it’s really easy to get up for a Team USA relay and to throw down a really fast swim.”
In fact, Ledecky produced one of her most impressive swims of the Games in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay final, turning in the fastest split of the entire relay to anchor Team USA from third to secure the silver medal.
“You want to do it for your teammates and you want to do it for your country. You know that three other people are relying on you to give your very best. All four of us that were on that relay did that,” she says. “As the anchor, [the teammate who swims last], and getting to watch their swims before mine, I could see that they were having the best possible swims, so I had that energy and excitement to go out there and give it my best as well.”
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