Expectations are high for Katie Ledecky at the Rio Olympics.
After sweeping the 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter freestyles at the 2015 World Championships and setting world records in the 400, 800, and 1,500, anything short of dominance in Rio will be a disappointment.
Yet prior to Ledecky’s rise to becoming the best female swimmer — and arguably the best swimmer overall — in the world, she made a not-so-minor change to her approach that fuelled her greatness.
According to Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin, during a practice in 2011, Ledecky was challenged to swim laps in fewer strokes and often had to lunge at the wall to complete the lap. Her then-coach Yuri Suguiyama had been theorizing that Ledecky would benefit from a “gallop” or “hitch” stroke, similar to how male swimmers like Michael Phelps swim.
The drill proved his theory.
Sheining describes the stroke as more “syncopated” than “metronomic.” ESPN’s Philip Hersh notes that her left arms stays on top of the water slightly longer than her right. It also involves her legs more and requires increased coordination from her arms through her hips and legs to prevent drag.
Ledecky told Sheinin, “[Suguiyama] said, “Ooh, that stroke looked really good. Let’s try to hold that for a whole 125.'”
However, Suguiyama said it was intentional after studying her stroke:
“She was swimming more like a classic female distance swimmer. She would breathe to both sides. She had kind of a sporadic kick, or what we call a two-beat kick. And I don’t know — I just didn’t like the way she swam…. I think I was watching a Phelps race from 2007. His legs were moving the entire time. He had a nice little hitch, or a gallop, and I was like, man, Katie could swim that way…. It just takes advantage of the aggression and the kind of fury that she swims with.”
Ledecky’s current coach Bruce Gemmell told Hersh: “She grabs water and pulls like a rock climber. Everyone else’s hand moves through the water. She moves her body past her hand.”
Below, the stroke can be seen during Ledecky’s 800-meter swim at the 2016 Arena Pro Swim Series. Note how her left arms drags and stays on top of the water longer than her right and how she continuously breathes from her right side:
The timing wasn’t coincidental, either. The change took place in 2011, months before the 2012 Olympics, where Ledecky captured her first gold as a 15-year-old in the 800-meter freestyle. From there, she began her ascent.
As Connor Jaeger, a U.S. Olympic swimmer, told Sheinin, “Her stroke is like a man’s stroke. I mean that in a positive way. She swims like a man.”
It’s fitting, then, that Ledecky trains with men and often beats them in the pool, according to Hersh.
“She’ll literally beat all the guys in the workout, and it looks like it’s nothing, like she is barely breathing,” Phelps told Hersh.
Expectations are undoubtedly high for Ledecky at Rio, and justifiably so. Watching her attempt to live up to those expectations will be one of the must-watch stories of the Olympics.
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