Katie Ledecky sat at a table overlooking the Stanford aquatic facilities last May, two months away from the Tokyo Olympics and five years into her time as a student and athlete at the school. She was talking about her progression from training as a teenager in Washington, D.C., through the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, then moving to the West Coast.
“I think each [Olympic] cycle feels different,” she said then. “Different circumstances, different approach. I kind of like it that way, though. You don’t want to go eight or nine years with everything the same.”
Hearing that, it wasn’t hard to do the math and suspect that the greatest women’s swimmer in history would be on the move after Tokyo. The Paris Olympics are in '24, and if Ledecky stayed in Palo Alto through then she would have been doing exactly what she said she didn’t want to do. As much as she loved the dual academic and athletic challenge of Stanford, you could see the expiration date looming on her time there.
So the news Wednesday that she is moving her training base did not come as a shock. However, the new destination initially registered as a surprise; the assumption was that she would go back home to Nation’s Capital Swim Club and rejoin Bruce Gemmell, who coached her through her four-gold-medal tour de force in Rio. But on further examination, relocating to the University of Florida makes perfect sense.
(Florida’s announcement of Ledecky’s arrival included the news that she will have the title of volunteer assistant coach. How much coaching she does remains to be seen, but it is something that can only help the Gators in recruiting.)
Ledecky needed a change, and Florida provides not only a new atmosphere but the ultimate training partners for a freestyler with her relentless competitive drive. Namely, Florida has the world’s new No. 1 male distance swimmer in Bobby Finke, who stunned everyone in Tokyo by winning both the 1,500- and 800-meter freestyles. And Florida also has Kieran Smith, the bronze medalist in the 400-meter free and the U.S.'s best time in the 200.
Those are Ledecky’s four primary events, and it’s been clear for years that there are no American women capable of pushing her. And while Stanford offered top coaching from Greg Meehan and elite training partners in many facets, the men and women train separately most of the time. Florida recently merged its men’s and women’s teams under coach Anthony Nesty, who is the landslide favorite to be the U.S. men’s Olympic coach in 2024.
Ledecky might as well chase the two best U.S. men on a daily basis in pursuit of reconnecting with the world record times she posted between 2016 and '18. What Finke and Smith did under Nesty to prepare for Tokyo clearly worked, so why not see what it can do for a woman who swims the same events?
Ledecky is such an intense practice swimmer that she thrives on the gut-busting effort of trying to keep pace with bigger, stronger, faster males. That was her daily reality at Nation’s Capital, when she regularly swam in a lane adjacent to Gemmell’s son, Andrew, who was a 2012 Olympian in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
Ledecky trained occasionally with some of the male swimmers at Stanford, but it wasn’t an everyday thing, and they weren’t Olympic-caliber freestylers. Finke and Smith give her a chance to recreate what she had with Andrew Gemmell, except they’re even better than he was.
Despite the University of Florida’s outdated and underwhelming pool space—including an outdoor pool with just five lanes—it now is the epicenter of the sport in America. And, really, the world. Sprinter Caeleb Dressel, the best male swimmer on the planet and winner of five gold medals in Tokyo, trains there with Gregg Troy in the postgrad group. Now Ledecky and Finke, who combined to sweep the 800- and 1,500-meter golds, form the ultimate distance power duo.
Ledecky made a stealth training trip to Gainesville last week to test-drive the arrangement, and it apparently met her expectations. She not only swam with Finke and Smith but ate at least one meal with them at Steve Spurrier’s new restaurant in town. The only thing left to do now is to teach her the Gator chomp.
It will be unusual to see her in a Gator Swim Club cap. But the fact of the matter is, many elite swimmers change training bases and coaches at least once during their careers, and often multiple times. For Ledecky, the switch creates what might be an unprecedented phenomenon in swimming: four Olympics with four different coaches.
Ledecky’s coach at Nation’s Capital when she made the 2012 Games as a 15-year-old was Yuri Suguiyama (now the coach at the University of Wisconsin). Gemmell was her mentor at NCAP through '16, after Suguiyama moved into college coaching. Meehan had her through college and as a postgrad at Stanford, including when she set her most recent world record in the 1,500-meter in '18. Now Nesty gets the assignment. (It’s certainly a different approach from that of the male swimming GOAT, Michael Phelps, who went to five Olympics with one coach, Bob Bowman.)
Meehan gave Ledecky a heartfelt sendoff after the news broke Wednesday. "It’s been an honor and a privilege to coach Katie these past five years," he said. "Beyond the records, medals and championships is an amazing woman. Stanford is simply a better place and I’m a better coach because of Katie’s time here. She’s become family. While we are sad to say goodbye, we are thrilled for Katie’s next journey. Coach Nesty and I have talked quite a bit these past few weeks and I believe Gainesville is going to be a great fit for this next phase of Katie’s career."
Although Ledecky’s move to Florida makes sense, it does not guarantee that she will be able to recapture the awe-inspiring world dominance she enjoyed from 2012 to '18. Australia’s Ariarne Titmus is the current queen of the 200- and 400-meter freestyles, taking down Ledecky in the latter of those events in Tokyo in what was simply the greatest women’s 400-meter freestyle ever. The 21-year-old Titmus is now within a few tenths of a second of Ledecky’s 400-meter world record.
Others are getting faster around her, rising to meet the bar where she raised it. And it simply may be that the Ledecky who rocked the world in Rio cannot be summoned again, due to age (she’s 24, not young by women’s swimming standards) or other factors.
Intellectually, she understands that could be the case. But the competitor and dreamer within isn’t yet ready to say that the world has seen the fastest version of Katie Ledecky.
“I’m always striving to be better than I’ve ever been, and it’s not easy when your times are world records,” Ledecky said in Tokyo, during a remarkably unguarded press conference after winning the 1,500. “I’m really tough on myself. But that’s the attitude I have—I literally approach each race with a belief that I can swim a best time, and that’s pretty darned tough. But that’s why I’ve been so successful over the years, because I approach every single race with the attitude that anything can happen, and I can break world records this race. I’m going to step up and throw down.
“It’s a real blessing and a curse to have that attitude. It’s served me well and it’s why I’ve broken so many world records and swam so many fast times. It’s also a really hard attitude to maintain for nine years.”
If that attitude is going to survive, it needs a different environment in which to thrive. Stanford was good for Katie Ledecky, and Katie Ledecky was good for Stanford. It’s where she grew into an adult, where she earned a college degree, where she made lifetime friendships and where she did some awesome swimming. Now it’s time for something new.