On Tuesday, June 26, the July issue of National Geographic hit the newsstands, featuring Katie Ledecky ’20 on the front cover. While Ledecky is no stranger to setting historic swimming records, she set a new record by becoming the first Olympian woman and swimmer to be featured on the cover of the magazine.
“I was thrilled and honored to be asked to be on the cover of National Geographic,” Ledecky, who became a professional athlete in March after her Stanford team won its second consecutive NCAA championship, wrote in an email to The Daily. “Hopefully the article will inspire women and all athletes to work hard and look for new ways to improve in their sport.”
The article, entitled “Building a Better Athlete,” featured other athletes, including swimmer Michael Andrew, sprinter Usain Bolt and weightlifter CJ Cummings, and focuses on how new technology advances the field of sports science and allows athletes to improve their speed — and to increase their strength.
In addition to accepting interviews with internationally-recognized magazines, Ledecky has now taken on the life of a professional swimmer. In March, she announced that she would forfeit her remaining two years of NCAA eligibility in order to swim professionally. While some wonder whether this decision may take time away from her studies at Stanford, Ledecky embraces this new challenge with optimism.
“I am very much looking forward to my life as a professional swimmer,” Ledecky wrote. “I am already loving it.”
Ledecky will continue to study psychology and train with her coach and teammates for the remainder of her time at Stanford. While maintaining student-athlete status is itself a challenge, Ledecky now must be able to manage the long hours of school and practice combined with new professional responsibilities once the fall quarter begins.
Becoming a professional athlete often affords more opportunities to interact with sports apparel companies that improve performance. Christine Brennan, the USA Today sports columnist who wrote the National Geographic cover story, explains how the development of high-tech track shoes, better time-keeping and even racing swimsuits contributes to the advancement in sports standards.
Like many professional athletes, Ledecky works with a company who develops sports apparel designed to cut racing times and improve performance. She partnered with the brand, TYR Sport, on June 8 and will continue the contract until the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024.
“The five-time Olympic gold medalist … eagerly digests readouts about her nutrition and blood work, and studies videos of her workouts and races, looking for ways to improve her arm and hand movements,” Brennan wrote in the cover story.
“She wanted to pay attention to the start of her races — how she dived into the pool,” wrote Brennan about Ledecky’s practice regimen for the Rio Olympics. She studied videos of her races to try to gain a fraction of a second, while also practicing strong finishes to get her hand to the wall first.
Ledecky’s passion for her sport also translates to her dedication to her schoolwork and completing her major. While her teachers and classmates treat her as a regular student, it is hard for them not to notice the diligence and care she places in her work.
“She’s doing it the right way,” said one of her professors, Jody Maxmin, to The Mercury News. “She is challenging 360 degrees of herself.”
While the National Geographic article attributes Ledecky’s success to her hard work and her attention to technique, Ledecky spoke of another factor who helped her accomplish her goals throughout her swim career and life.
“Great coaches and teammates and a really great support system also contribute to my success,” Ledecky wrote to The Daily. However, whatever technique Ledecky uses is successful, as the swimmer is a five-time Olympic gold medalist and has broken 14 world records throughout her career.
Even though Ledecky continues to race professionally and promote TYR, she still finds time to assimilate into the student body at Stanford to pursue her college degree. A rising junior, Ledecky has learned how to manage her time in order to succeed in school. As Ledecky moves into a time-consuming professional swimming career, she credits staying organized to performing well in classes.
“My education is important to me and I have always wanted to challenge myself and do my very best in school,” Ledecky wrote. “In order to do that I have had to prioritize my time and balance my schedule.”
The Daily asked Ledecky about her National Geographic feature, why she went pro, her career and life as a Stanford student.
Q&A with Katie Ledecky (responses have been lightly edited and condensed)
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What does it mean for you to be the first female Olympian and Olympic swimmer on the cover of a National Geographic issue?
Katie Ledecky (KL): I was thrilled and honored to be asked to be on the cover of National Geographic. I was really surprised, but pleased, to find out I was the first female Olympian and first Olympic swimmer to be on its cover. National Geographic is a wonderful magazine and I am really happy to have been featured in it and for my picture to be on its cover.
TSD: What is the significance of this recognition for women and athletes in your sport?
KL: The article features many athletes (male and female) and different sports so it was very meaningful to me that they chose a female athlete for the cover. Hopefully the article will inspire women and all athletes to work hard and look for new ways to improve in their sport.
TSD: The article focuses on the merging of your work ethic and attention to technique when you train. In your experience, is one more prevalent to your performance than the other?
KL: Both are important. I would not be able to focus on my technique and utilize science if not for the hard work that I have done through the years to get to that point. I continue to focus on both of those.
TSD: Are there any other factors that contribute to your success?
KL: I also pay attention to getting enough sleep and eating healthy. But great coaches and teammates and a really great support system also contribute to my success.
TSD: In addition, the article elaborates on how sports science impacts the way athletes perform, including what they wear. Could you tell us more about your decision to team up with TYR Swimwear?
KL: I am very excited about my partnership with TYR. I love their training and competition suits and I hope to work with them to help grow the sport.
TSD: Are there any goals you have set for yourself for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?
KL: Goal-setting has been a key to my swimming. I always set my goals a few years out and use them to motivate me in my training. They are goals that actually make me excited to go to the pool every day to train. I usually discuss them with my coach but do not share them publicly.
TSD: How were you able to balance Stanford schooling with being first an NCAA athlete, and now a pro athlete?
KL: Staying organized is very important when one is a student athlete. My education is important to me and I have always wanted to challenge myself and do my very best in school. In order to do that I have had to prioritize my time and balance my schedule.
TSD: What has been the most challenging part of being a Stanford student so far? Most rewarding?
KL: The most rewarding has been getting to know the wonderful professors and students on campus. I have taken some fabulous classes from world renowned faculty. While they are smart and enlightening, they also care about the students. The students I have gotten to know here are smart, driven, kind and fun. My Stanford experience has been terrific.
TSD: What has been your favorite pool to swim in, and why?
KL: The Stanford pools (Avery Aquatic Center) are my favorite pool. I love swimming outdoors and the facilities are fabulous.
TSD: What has been the most fun or fulfilling race you’ve ever swum?
KL: I would probably have to say that the Olympic final in 2012 in London was my most fulfilling race. It was my first international competition ever and the excitement of it being at the Olympics made the experience almost surreal.
TSD: Is there anything else you would like to comment on regarding the article or your recent decision to go pro?
KL: I am very much looking forward to my life as a professional swimmer. I am already loving it! I especially enjoy the opportunity to continue to take classes here at Stanford and to train with fabulous teammates every single day. I love the university and I enjoy the challenges of the academics here.
Contact Sophie Kroesche at so3.james14 ‘at’ gmail.com.