BUDAPEST, Hungary – Katie Ledecky shrugs off the notion that she’s doing anything special over the next week.
For the 20-year-old American star, the improbable has become the expected.
“It’s really just putting in the work, putting in the training,” Ledecky said Friday, sounding so nonchalant that she might as well have been describing a leisurely afternoon swim in one of those thermal baths along the Danube.
Of course, there’s nothing restful about her plans for the world championships in Budapest, where the swimming competition begins on Sunday.
Ledecky will race every day for seven straight days, a total of 6,300 meters if all goes according to plan. That’s nearly 4 miles in total, encompassing freestyle races that range from 200 meters (essentially, a sprint) to 1,500 (the grueling metric mile).
To add a little perspective, Michael Phelps put in 3,300 meters — roughly half the distance of Ledecky’s program — on his way to a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. No one is aware of a pool swimmer ever covering so much distance within the confines of a single major meet.
For anyone else, it would seem ludicrous to even consider such a daunting plan.
But Ledecky did 6,200 meters at the last world championships, two years ago in Kazan, Russia, where she won five gold medals. She’s added the 4×100 free relay to her repertoire since then.
At the Rio Olympics last summer, Ledecky captured four gold medals and a silver. That must have seemed like a breeze, a mere 3,300 meters for the week since the 1,500 wasn’t part of the women’s program.
That will change at the 2020 Games in Toyko, so this will be the first test of what her program will probably look like at the next Olympics.
“I feel like I’m really prepared,” Ledecky said. “I was confident two years with what that schedule would be like and how I could handle it and manage it so I would have good energy throughout the week.”
Life has changed quite a bit since her triumphant performance in Brazil.
A native of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, she moved away from home for the first time to attend Stanford, an experience that has given her a whole new balance and perspective. The change of scenery forced her to change coaches, as well. She left Bruce Gemmell and is now working with her college coach, Greg Meehan, who is serving as the head U.S. women’s coach in Budapest.
Meehan knew he was inheriting a special talent.
He tweaked a few things in her training regimen, and worked to make her stroke a bit longer and more efficient, but Ledecky certainly didn’t need a major overhaul.
“She knows how to handle that racing load,” Meehan said. “Nothing prepares you for that other than experience and hard work. She did a great job with Bruce Gemmell. Bruce prepared her in that regard. We’ve just taken the ball and continued to run with it. She’s in a great spot.”
Ledecky will have the spotlight largely to herself in Hungary.
Michael Phelps retired again (except for racing sharks), Ryan Lochte was suspended for his antics in Rio and Missy Franklin is taking the year off after a disappointing Olympic performance.
While still a bit too young to be voted a team captain — that honor went to Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers, Elizabeth Beisel and Katie Meili — Ledecky has definitely taken on more of a leadership role, especially with teenage swimmers such as 15-year-old Regan Smith and 17-year-old Dakota Luther.
“I still feel pretty young on this team,” Ledecky said with a smile. “But I do feel like I can have a little bit more of a leadership role this year.”
When she hangs out with Smith and Luther, both competing in their first international meets, she’s reminded of her first big competition — the 2012 London Olympics, where Ledecky, then only 15, stunned everyone by winning gold in the 800 free.
“I was wide-eyed for that whole experience,” she recalled. “There were people on that team I had looked up to for so long. Now, it’s so cool to see (a new wave of swimmers) have that experience. They always know they can come to me or any of the older swimmers for advice.”
By adding another event to her already crowded schedule, Ledecky has a shot at matching Franklin’s female benchmark of six gold medals at the 2013 worlds in Barcelona.
But she isn’t thinking about records.
She’s already got plenty of those.
“The bottom line is: I started swimming just for fun, and that’s what it’s all about,” Ledecky said. “It’s a lot of fun to be with Team USA, see them succeed, cheer them on. If I come away from this week having a lot of fun, it will be a successful. I don’t really — well, ‘care’ is not the right word — but I don’t really focus on winning gold medals and breaking world records. It’s all about enjoying this process and being with my teammates.”