Meet America’s Long Distance Sprinter, Katie Ledecky

I have to share this NY Times story about US swimmer Katie Ledecky. What a classic Olympic story.

I love a few things the reporter picked up on here. First, she DOES take these races out in a way that is (to this point) unconventional – she’s got the posture and turnover of a sprinter!

The first time I saw her race at the London Games in the 800 Free, I thought, aw……there is no way she is going to hold onto that pace…how sad, she is just way too excited, but hey first Games it happens to everyone. I had literally never seen anyone race it like that before. I’m sure we will see a lot of swimmers mimicking that approach. (Watching again, I’m struck by her stroke rate – amazing!)

I also love the lead of the article, the anecdote about her first race. Also classic!! And important. An astonishing number of people seem to think that you just fall out of the womb either on or off track to become an Olympic athlete. They talk about hard work, but they still seem to think that if you are good at something at 6, you are on track to be world-class at that something, and that if you’re not, you’re not. Did anyone after Katie’s first race elbow each other and whisper, “Eh, now there’s a world record holder, just watch.”

Early adversity, as I call it, can be really beneficial. I want my swimmers to win their races, yes, but I actually feel a little bad for the ones who win every race, when they are 6, 8, 11 years old. (For all I know Katie did win tons of races at that age.) I worry about whether the swimmers who are wildly successful early on are actually learning what they will need to be successful in high school, in college, and beyond – when they actually could be in a position to be racing for an Olympic medal. I’m not sue they can comprehend what I’m saying when they wave their blue and red ribbons at me and I smile and say, “Enjoy it. It won’t always be this easy.”

Eventually, their little bodies change into teenage and then adult bodies, they often have to adjust their strokes, and the competition gets much stiffer. The vast majority of those who win almost everything early on not only have a harder time learning the mental skills it takes to be resilient when the wins don’t just fall into their laps anymore, but also they get discouraged and end up leaving the sport.

So what makes a champion? Some of it is genetics, yes. And you do have to have train the sport-specific skills, which requires access to resources, including mentors, competitors, and knowledgeable coaches. But having been in this elite sport world for a solid decade now, I believe a big chunk of it is having parents and coaches who can model and teach the mental skills. It wasn’t until the last 4 to 6 months of my career that I truly, deeply understood – and took advantage of – this.

Yuri Suguiyama, one of Katie’s age-group coaches, was quoted in the article: “From an early age, she enjoyed the process as much as the end result…The one thing that worked with Katie is we never put expectations on her….” (He quickly followed up by noting that she often exceeded their expectations anyway.)

Maybe most telling was the quote from her brother, though. You DO just have to want it more than everyone else.



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