PALO ALTO, Calif. — Katie Ledecky was not angling to become the face of American swimming when she joined the Palisades Porpoises as a 6-year-old. Her grand goal was to make it to the other side of the 25-yard pool without having to stop and rest on the lane line.
“Swimming is really just for me still a hobby,” Ledecky said. Then she caught herself. “It’s more than that now, I guess.”
Ledecky, 21, was speaking in June, shortly after she had secured her first major sponsorship, a seven-year deal with the TYR swimwear company worth more than $7 million. Outwardly, her daily life has not changed much since she turned pro this spring, aside from persistent jokes about her obligation to pick up dinner checks. Ledecky still trains at Stanford, though she is no longer eligible to compete at the college level, and she remains a student there, a rising junior with a 3.9 grade point average who is majoring in psychology and planning to work as a research grunt at the university’s Mind & Body Lab.
At the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo, her first major international meet as a pro, Ledecky is scheduled to compete Thursday in the 800-meter freestyle, the event that marked her as a star at age 15 when she won her first Olympic gold medal.
Much attention has been lavished on Ledecky since her coming-out party at the London Games, but she remained largely unfazed. Her unflappable nature and a cocoon that enveloped her as an amateur, even in college, has helped her remain grounded. Ledecky could pedal around campus virtually unnoticed if she weren’t one of the rare students to faithfully wear a bike helmet. But more will be expected of her now that her passion has become her profession. Ledecky will be swimming to please corporate sponsors, not just herself, and to elevate the extrinsic worth of a sport that she values for its intrinsic benefits.
The responsibilities, and expectations, can be overwhelming. And female athletes often face the added pressure of being viewed through only the narrowest of lenses, their physical appearance emphasized as their main selling point.
But just as she revolutionized distance freestyle with a strategy of attacking her events as if they were long sprints, Ledecky has begun creating a distinctive template for life as a pro athlete. In the early stages, it appears to be the contemplative twin of her aggressive swimming stroke.
Last month, Ledecky became the first female Olympian to grace the cover of National Geographic, a magazine she has loved since she was a child. The accompanying article focused on science and sports.
The magazine arranged a question-and-answer session between Ledecky and the public on Twitter, where she talked about setting goals but also, with particular eloquence, about encouraging young athletes to relish the everyday joys of challenging themselves rather than obsessing over success.
A woman from Virginia joined the Twitter exchange to ask for advice for her 11-year-old daughter, who loved swimming but seemed unable “to push ahead of the others.”
Ledecky has also heard of parents frantically seeking a version of her expensive high-tech swimsuit for their daughters, whom they describe as “the next Katie Ledecky.”
The original Ledecky doesn’t remember being in such a hurry to become what she is today. After she recently watched a video on social media of a 4-year-old girl swimming the 100-meter freestyle in a long-course, 50-meter pool, Ledecky recalled that she hadn’t raced in anything bigger than 25 yards until she was 8.
“I feel lucky that I could enjoy swimming,” Ledecky said, warming to a theme that seems destined to become part of her platform as a public figure. “People need to just relax,” she added, “and take a step back and realize you don’t have to be great at this young age. It’s not about immediate results.”
At Stanford, Ledecky has assembled a team around her that she believes is uniquely equipped to help her balance being a college student and a global brand ambassador while maximizing her swimming potential.
Her academic adviser is Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology who was a serious competitive gymnast as a preteen before shifting her focus to ice hockey, which she played through college, while working toward an undergraduate degree in psychology at Harvard. Crum started out on a boys’ team in Aspen, Colo., before Crum’s mother and other parents formed a girls’ team.
“The message my parents imparted was whatever you’re doing, do it well, take it seriously and recognize that at the end of the day it’s a sport but also a vehicle to being the best person you can be,” said Crum, who is the director of Stanford’s Mind & Body Lab, where Ledecky will work for course credit.
Ledecky was fresh off a five-medal performance at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics when she signed up for a Crum seminar, “How Beliefs Create Reality,” in her first college quarter.
On the first day of class, Crum separated her 16 students into pairs, told them to get to know their partners, then do introductions based on what they had learned. Crum will never forget the introduction for Ledecky. Here she was, an athlete whose face had been splashed across television and social media over the summer, and Ledecky’s partner said only: “This is Katie. She really loves to swim and this summer she met all of her goals.”
Ledecky had failed to tell the other student that those goals included becoming the first woman since Debbie Meyer in 1968 to win the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle races in a single Olympics.
“I remember having so much respect for her,” Crum said. “Not just because of what she’s accomplished but how humble she was.”
In the spring of this year, Crum said, she received an email from Ledecky that did not include a question about class or an attempt to schedule office hours. Ledecky had read about Crum’s winning a research grant and written to congratulate her.
“To be fully human becomes increasingly challenging with the more accolades you get,” said Crum, who has seen no cause for concern with Ledecky. “She understands that swimming doesn’t need to be a zero-sum thing.”
The two years that Ledecky spent leading Stanford to back-to-back N.C.A.A. titles cost her more than a head start on endorsement opportunities. They cost her as a competitor. But the decision to be a member of the women’s swim team, and to train under Stanford’s Greg Meehan, who fosters his athletes’ intellectual development, was in sync with her goal of swimming not just for times, but also for the stimulation and camaraderie.
“I had a lot of fun and made some friends that I’ll have forever,” said Ledecky, who won five individual N.C.A.A. crowns and was a member of three national championship relays.
Meehan, who will shepherd Ledecky through the 2020 Olympics, and presumably the 2024 Games as well, said the ease with which Ledecky won many of her races belied the challenges that college swimming presented.
The meet schedule cut into Ledecky’s blocks of training. Also, she practiced a lot more in a short, 25-yard course used for collegiate competition, sharpening her turns but losing long-course training that is vital for international events, particularly the 1,500-meter freestyle. Then there was Ledecky’s enthusiastic embrace of Stanford’s team-first mantra. She swam off races like the 200-yard butterfly because the Cardinal was deep in the distance freestyle — in no small part because of her daily presence.
At the N.C.A.A. championships, she competed in the 400-yard individual medley instead of the 200 freestyle, in which she had shared the 2017 title, so Stanford could maximize its points. And she was an ardent cheerleader for her teammates, which could be emotionally draining.
“She gave so much of herself to the team,” Meehan said. “This allows her to be a little more selfish.”
In her first race after shedding her amateur status, Ledecky shaved five seconds off her three-year-old world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle. It was the 14th world record swim of her career but her first since she entered Stanford.
Ledecky can’t place her finger on the reason, but since the end of her college career, “I’ve had my best training,” she said. “I was able to just kind of flip a switch and start doing things in practice that I haven’t ever done or hadn’t done since the year before Rio.”
It’s always about the process for Ledecky, and that was the prism through which she replied to Lynda Falkenstein, the Virginia mother in the Twitter exchange who had requested advice for her 11-year-daughter.
Ledecky replied as if speaking directly to the daughter, Èowyn: “Embrace the chase of those ahead of you. The times will come and you will have fun getting there.”
Ledecky’s advice traveled like good news through the Hayden Village Villains, where the Falkensteins are members. Some of the parents have contemplated designing team T-shirts that say “Embrace the Chase” across the front and “The Times Will Come” across the back, Falkenstein said. In an area where parents often feel pressured to hire private coaches for their children and steer them to a single sport, Ledecky’s message was medicine that broke the fever.
In her first meet after reading Ledecky’s message, Èowyn Falkenstein posted best times in her butterfly, backstroke and freestyle races. “We read what Katie wrote,” Lynda Falkenstein said, “and it was like, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe we should just relax.’ ”