The Best Athlete in the World Right Now Is an 18-Year-Old Swimmer, and What She’s Doing Is Nuts

The Best Athlete in the World Right Now Is an 18-Year-Old Swimmer, and What She’s Doing Is Nuts

We can learn so much from athletes. Reverse engineering their performances into our own lives can create a realistic expectation about the amount of pain, struggle, effort and investment it takes to win in your chosen field. It doesn’t matter whether your victories are measured in medals, dollars, kids education, parties attended or business startups, what does matter is whether you set yourself realistic process for achieving your expected results.

When you read this article take a moment to reflect on this: In every race this amazing athlete swam in, there were other hopefuls. Other women who had given up their days and nights to win. Other youth who had made sacrifices and suffered incredible hardship to get to the games, but lost. They will be forgotten. Who came second in the swim? Who cares. Who came fourth and didn’t even get a medal? It’s a competitive world and if you are fluffing around trying to balance family, health, business, social life with time and effort, you are going to be a loser. The winner knows their priorities and allocates time to that, and sorts all else out without time.

The other amazing thing that is not mentioned here is the workload this young athlete has in order to build the stamina to swim world records back to back in one event. It’s not a high load – she doesn’t swim all day. She doesn’t swim much more than you or I. She is coached so that everything she does matters. She is training to win, not training to exhaust herself. She is scientifically monitored to achieve results, not work hard. You can reverse engineer this philosophy into your life. Are you working on low or high priiority? Are you doing what will cause your results or are you doing average stuff, in an average way, to create an average spread over an average performance? If you are, please lower your expectation in the race. You will not win.

People come to me all the time talking about hard work, commitment and time spent as some barometer of how probable their outcomes will happen. They say “I’ve been working like a dog for this,” in some ways linking working like a dog to results. That’s ridiculous, expensive and hurtful. It’s not hard work that achieves things, it’s smart work. It’s cutting out rhetoric, cutting out messing around on the internet, it’s cutting out what doesn’t cause you to perform. Be honest with yourself. Do less – gain more. Ask yourself how you can be a more authentic competitor – not by getting angry with your competition or attacking your customers, but by thinking like an Olympic athlete and putting in the hurt that’ll return the optimum results from the minimum of waste. Simply, if you’re exhausted and working hard, you’re sabotaging your performance.

The Best Athlete in the World Right Now Is an 18-Year-Old Swimmer, and What She’s Doing Is Nuts

An inside look at Katie Ledecky’s rise to greatness that will leave even non-swimmers awestruck
By: Bradley Stulberg Aug 11, 2015

At the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, last week, 18-year-old Katie Ledecky became the first swimmer ever to win the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1,500-meter individual freestyle races during a single meet. It may not be the most impressive accomplishment in the history of swimming—other athletes have won more events in a single competition (Michael Phelps’s eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympic Games, for instance)—but those feats included a variety of strokes and relays. No one has ever dominated a single stroke across such diverse distances like Ledecky did in Kazan.

While simultaneously beating everyone at just about every distance involving freestyle, Ledecky set three world records and swam an impressive 1500m/200m double—with less than 30 minutes between races. Her world championship week “ranks right up there with Jim Ryun’s sub 4-minute high school mile, Eddie Merckx’s cycling dominance, and Secretariat’s Triple Crown as among the most remarkable endurance performances ever,” says Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic and world-renowned expert on health and human performance.

I asked Joyner to help me, a non-swimmer, wrap my head around Ledecky’s world championship week. “Imagine a runner sets a world record in the 5K, then 30 minutes later, runs a world-class 800-meter sprint, and then a day later, wins world championships in the mile and 800.” What Ledecky did, Joyner says, was simply “insane.” The fact that she won long distance events like the 1500m and 800m as well the shorter 200m in the same meet puts Ledecky’s accomplishment “on a different level than even what Michael Phelps has done.”
Ledecky’s physiology is undoubtedly superb. At 6’0’’ and 155 pounds with a huge aerobic engine, Joyner says she is perfectly built to be a great female swimmer. What sets her apart, however, is her form. According to Joyner, unlike in other endurance sports such as running and cycling, where efficiency may boost performance by a mere few percentage points, technique can be a make or break factor in swimming.

“While discussion about physiological differences [between Ledecky and everyone she leaves behind] are somewhat speculative, there is one aspect of fast swimming that is wholly empirical and entirely visible,” says Terry Laughlin, swim stroke specialist and founder of the popular Total Immersion swimming program. “Form, and in particular, stroke length relative to height.” The longer your stroke length, the more efficient you are in the water.

Laughlin, who repeatedly watched recordings of Ledecky’s world championship races, notes that at times when Ledecky was pushing hardest—like during the final 50 meters of her come-from-behind 200m win—she increased her stroke length by up to 5 percent, something he calls “stunning.” While the form of most swimmers deteriorates when they are redlining, Ledecky’s does the opposite: it improves. “I don’t think this is conscious,” says Laughlin. “It’s that when she reaches deep, her instinctive way of doing so is highly effective,” he says.

Stroke length happens to be highly coachable; but the ability to keep it together at the end of an all-out effort is not. Joyner puts it another way, saying of Ledecky: “This is a person who is able to maximally push herself at something that can be extremely painful and maximally relax at the same time. That’s her real gift.”

Ledecky’s gift for fiercely smooth propulsion has propelled her to the top of her sport, perhaps to the top of all of sports, over the last three years, but the scariest part of Ledecky’s dominance might just be her young age. Endurance athletes tend to peak late, in their late 20’s or even early 30’s. Joyner and Laughlin both believe that Ledecky’s best years are yet to come.

In the near term, Ledecky is taking a year-off from college to train for the 2016 Olympics, after which she’ll enroll at Stanford University. But before she shifts focus to winning Olympic gold medals, she is taking care of some lingering high-school matters. In an interview with NBC following her unprecedented performance, Ledecky told commentators that she needs to complete a few more driver’s education classes before she can get her license, and that she is looking forward to “sitting on the couch drinking milkshakes” after having her wisdom teeth removed.