As Katie Ledecky waited for an Uber on Stanford’s campus last week, two women in the midst of a scavenger hunt approached.
They needed a picture of a Stanford student. Could the sophomore psychology major help?
“I said … ‘Does it get you bonus points if I tell you I’m an Olympian?” Ledecky recalled. “And they’re like, ‘What?’ And I’ve kind of been in similar situations in the past. … Sometime it’s an Uber driver that asks me what sport I play and I say swimming. And that’s the end of the conversation.”
She told the women her name to no discernible effect, but, minutes later, heard laughter and screams when they realized she was the five-time Olympic gold medalist who is perhaps the world’s most dominant swimmer.
Ledecky, 21, is often so far in front of competitors, she looks as if she is swimming alone. She has 14 world records. And after foregoing her final two years of competition at Stanford to become a professional in March, she signed an endorsement deal with TYR that the Seal Beach-based swimwear company described as “the most lucrative partnership in the history of the swim industry.”
Still, Ledecky remains so unassuming, so nonchalant, so normal — apart from the threat to make history each time she springs off a starting block — that it’s easy to overlook her greatness.
“She’s probably the perfect role model for men or women to follow,” said Jon Urbanchek, the national team’s technical advisor whose 52-year coaching career includes working closely with Ledecky.
She added a victory in the 200 freestyle Thursday — the 15th national title of her career — and is favored to win the 400 and 1,500 freestyles Saturday and Sunday.
“People talk about her work ethic all the time. It’s incredible,” said Katie Meili, winner of two medals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. “She’s very focused. She’s very smart. And she has high goals for herself. I don’t see why anybody can’t continue to improve if you focus on the right things.”
Ledecky, who won her first Olympic gold medal in the 800 freestyle at age 15 during the London Games in 2012, is making the transition from prodigy to professional look simple.
“It hasn’t been extremely different,” she said.
In Ledecky’s final college meet in March, she won the 1,650-yard freestyle by 28 seconds. That gave her eight NCAA titles to accompany 15 NCAA records and 11 U.S. records in addition to two team titles during two seasons at Stanford.
In a converted dance studio steps from the Woollett Aquatics Center, Ledecky struggled to think of ways that becoming a professional has altered her routine, career or life in significant ways.
“I guess my practice schedule has changed just a little bit,” she allowed.
The most difficult part is continuing to maintain — and exceed — the standard she’s set.
“I think it gets harder,” Ledecky said. “It’s never easy and it’s something that I know that it only gets harder as you get faster, to go faster and to break those times or beat those times.”
David Marsh, who coached the U.S. women’s team in Rio de Janeiro when Ledecky won four gold medals and set two world records, believes other swimmers will emerge to push the woman setting the pace for the sport.
“She’s special, but she won’t be the last one we’ll see,” Marsh said. “There will be other swimmers coming into our sport that have this special depth. They’ll have the special potential, then they’ll act on it.”
The two-year gap between ending her college career and the 2020 Tokyo Games — where the 1,500 freestyle will join the women’s program, giving Ledecky another event to own — is part of the plan. While added professional commitments have distracted other swimmers, Ledecky wanted a buffer period to adjust before the hectic pace of an Olympic year.
“She’s on a mission,” Urbanchek said. “You can’t really distract her.”
As usual, the plan is working as expected.
Los Angeles Times staff writer David Wharton contributed to this report.