Katie Ledecky packed for this week’s U.S. Olympic swimming trials with her usual swim gear and unparalleled goals — plus a carefully folded black cap and gown. On Sunday, one day before her first race, Ledecky planned to take part in Stanford’s commencement ceremony — from an Omaha hotel room 1,700 miles away from campus.
She has no speaking role in the ceremony; she is just one of some 1,450 graduates in Stanford’s Class of 2021. What could she say about all that has happened these past few years?
In 2016, she arrived in Palo Alto, Calif., as a 19-year-old, having taken a gap year after graduating from Stone Ridge in Bethesda to train for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. She had never lived alone, didn’t cook for herself and didn’t know how to ride a bike. She had never paid a bill or drawn a paycheck. As Ledecky says, “Just thinking about being on the pool deck in Rio, that feels like a long time ago.”
Since then, she has compiled one of the most remarkable collegiate swimming careers before turning pro and has shuffled between living an ordinary campus life and a surreal pseudo-celebrity existence. She studied Greek art one semester, and she gave a swimming lesson to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.
All of it led her here: a virtual graduation ceremony in a Nebraska hotel room, followed in short order by a coronation in a swimming pool.
“I have moments where I have to pinch myself,” said Ledecky, 24. “There have been times on campus and it feels a little surreal that I go to school here, or I tell myself, ‘I’ve been to the Olympics — what?’ Even that hasn’t completely sunk in yet, you know?”
Already the owner of five Olympic gold medals, 15 world titles and three world records, Ledecky is on the cusp of a third Summer Games, one that can only further solidify her as one of the sport’s all-time greats. On Monday, she will race the 400-meter freestyle, the first of four events on her ambitious trials program. If all goes as planned, Ledecky will qualify to compete in at least five events at the Tokyo Olympics: the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races, plus the 4×200 relay. There’s an outside chance she’ll also get tapped for the 4×100 relay team, which would potentially allow her to top her five-medal haul from the Rio Games.
“When we look back 30 or 40 years from now at what Katie is doing, I think we’ll be able to appreciate it a lot more,” says Rowdy Gaines, an NBC analyst and a three-time Olympic champion. “She’s just gotten everybody used to it. She’s gotten us used to these times that we never thought were even possible.”
Swimming is now both a passion and job for Ledecky, but the past five years have reinforced that it’s not everything. She will return to her sport’s biggest stage with the same lofty expectations — chasing times, speeds and records that no other female swimmer has known — but with a perspective, understanding and maturity forged by her studies at Stanford, her time living alone on the West Coast and a pandemic that delayed an Olympics and deferred her goals.
Her original plan was to compete in Tokyo and then spend the next 12 to 18 months wrapping up her studies. But when the Olympics were postponed a full year, she re-enrolled in classes. As covid-19 upended life across the globe, Ledecky even took a course called “Global Change and Emerging Infectious Disease.” She finished her schooling more than a year earlier than planned, completing all the coursework for her undergraduate degree in psychology, making the next few days in Omaha cause for celebration on multiple fronts.
Ledecky has always been goal-oriented. Growing up in Bethesda, she set benchmarks and usually hit them. When she enrolled at Stanford, flipping through a course catalogue, a psychology class called “How Beliefs Create Reality” caught her eye.
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