When Katie Ledecky was seven years old, she was not the fastest swimmer in the pool. In fact, her main goal was to compete in a 25-meter race without stopping and hanging on the lane line.
That summer she practiced hard, and by the time she felt confident enough to attempt the feat, she’d developed an ear infection. When the doctor told Katie and her mom that the little swimmer wouldn’t be able to compete that weekend, he was unprepared for Katie’s response. She wailed so long and loud that the doctor finally gave in and simply told her mother to pack Katie’s ears with cotton before the race. At that meet, Katie didn’t win the race or set any records, but she did complete the 25-meter lap without stopping.
Over the years, many people have asked Katie, her parents and her coaches about when and how she became the fierce competitor she is. They want to know how and why she does what she does, and how she manages to continue setting records and winning. But even more than that, people want to know what drives Katie Ledecky to do the amazing things she does in the pool. When reporters ask her these questions, Katie usually offers her trademark smile and shrug, and when these interviewers turn to her parents and coaches, they admit that they aren’t sure either.
However, when you look at Ledecky’s family history, it becomes a little more obvious that she comes from head down, work hard people who have consistently done what was necessary to get the job done. Her grandfather, Bud Hagen, served in World War II as a doctor and was awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for saving soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa (despite his own broken ribs) was her role model for endurance. He was the one who advised his granddaughter to “Take the lead, keep the lead,” and it stuck. Ledecky’s mother, Mary Gen, swam competitively in her youth, and often swam so hard she would retch and struggle to draw a breath by the end of a race, and she passed on the “give it your all” gene.
Katie’s coaches have consistently said that they aren’t the ones motivating her – she motivates herself to perform at her absolute best in every practice and every race. Her coaches provide her with the skills needed to improve her strokes and breathing techniques. Coach Yuri Suguiyama has been credited with helping Ledecky develop and refine her long loping stroke, one-side breathing technique and high-speed kick, and he says that discovering the right stroke and kick for her was the key to opening up her winning potential.
Every other coach that has worked with Ledecky says that her internal motivation and her ability to bounce back quickly (from a less than ideal practice or race) is something they rarely see in swimmers. She takes the good with the bad and comes back stronger and more determined the next time she dives in. Part of her internal motivation comes from a practice she began at eight years of age – setting her own “Want Times,” and is something she continues to do.
What Ledecky herself says it comes down to is simply wanting to swim. She’s said in interviews that she loves being in the water, and that often, during a race, she blots out the other swimmers and races against her own times. During the 2016 Olympics, she told Sports Illustrated reporter, S.L. Price, “I love being in the water. I love training. I hate when I have to take a week off. At the end of the season I always take a week or 10 days off or longer, and I really don’t like it. That’s when we go to Palisades the most and sometimes I have to do laps because I just get way too anxious.”
By Mary Gebhart