Olympic and Stanford swim star Katie Ledecky turning pro
Katie Ledecky is turning pro.
The five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist gave up her final two years of eligibility at Stanford, allowing her to concentrate on training for the 2020 Olympics while cashing in on sponsorship and endorsement deals that wouldn’t have been available to her as a college athlete.
Other than the financial windfall, Ledecky isn’t planning any big changes. She will continue training on the West Coast under coach Greg Meehan while working toward her degree at Stanford, where she’s been focused on psychology and political science.
“It’s something I could’ve done in two years once I completed my eligibility, but this gives me some time before 2020 to really focus in on getting all the pieces in place so I can really train hard and focus on my training leading up to 2020,” Ledecky said at the Washington Press Club, where she made the announcement Monday while home on spring break.
Meehan said the two discussed Ledecky’s pro aspirations “casually during the recruiting process, but got more specific back in September.“ At that time, they decided she should make the transition after the NCAA championships, which were held two weekends ago at Ohio State.
“The biggest benefit is it allows time for her to learn how to manage being a professional athlete before getting laser focused on 2020,” Meehan told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “In my opinion, the Olympic year is maybe not the best time to make that transition.”
The 21-year-old Ledecky captured five NCAA individual titles while helping the Stanford women win two straight national championships, the school’s first back-to-back titles since taking five straight from 1992-96. At this year championships, she won her second straight title in the 1,650-yard free by lapping the field and finishing nearly 30 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
“A lot of people think of swimming as an individual sport. It really can be a team sport,” she said. “I feel like I got to take full advantage of that, to really have that the full experience of being part of a special team, being part of something where we were working toward a common goal and doing it together.”
Meehan said turning pro should help Ledecky be in peak condition for the next Olympics.
College meets use 25-yard courses, while most major international competitions are conducted in 50-meter pools.
“It simplifies her schedule,” Meehan said. “Less travel and fewer short-course meets allow for bigger blocks of training and more long-course racing.”
As a college athlete, of course, Ledecky wasn’t allowed to sign with sponsors or take endorsement deals that provide the bulk of the income for top swimmers. That would have cost her potentially millions of dollars ahead of next year’s world championships in South Korea and the 2020 Tokyo Games, where she is again expected to be one of the biggest stars.
Ledecky won four golds and a relay silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She currently holds world records in three freestyle events covering 400, 800 and 1,500 meters.
Last summer, Ledecky competed in six events at the world championships in Budapest, Hungary — winning five golds and a silver — and she will likely try to duplicate that grueling schedule in Tokyo now that the 1,500 free has been added to the Olympic program as a women’s event.
“It’s something that I’m really excited about,” Ledecky said. “I’m going to be continuing to train and go to school at Stanford, and continue to keep my focus where it’s already been, which is on my studies and my swimming and what matters to me, and I get to do it around some really great people.”
Ledecky is following a similar path to the one taken by Missy Franklin, who starred at the 2012 Olympic but put off her professional career to swim collegiately at California for two years.
After turning pro in 2015, Franklin moved back to Colorado to train but struggled to regain the form she showed in London. She qualified in only two individual events at the Rio Games and failed to make the final in either one. Franklin later expressed regret about leaving the college environment, saying she felt lonely and isolated at home since many of her high school friends had moved away.
“There was nothing to do but just train and swim,” Franklin told the AP last summer while reflecting on what went wrong in Rio. “That became my whole life. I had to get to a place where I could find balance again.”
Ledecky intends to keep that balance. She is staying at college and has more than two years to adjust to the demands of being a pro before the 2020 Olympics — a year longer than Franklin did.
“I now have the opportunity to combine a lot of those things that I love and a lot of those things that I find fun,” she said. “I get to really pursue my passion now as a professional athlete: of helping others, swimming fast, studying hard, really just trying to put together all the pieces that I really enjoy.”