How Katie Ledecky harnesses the power of failure in her pursuit of greatness

Katie Ledecky of the United States celebrates winning gold and setting a new world record in the Women's 800m Freestyle Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Katie Ledecky of the United States celebrates winning gold and setting a new world record in the Women's 800m Freestyle Final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

The American could become the most successful female Olympic swimmer in history at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and owes much of her success to believing in the impossible.

Katie Ledecky is on the verge of greatness. The greatest individual female swimmer in Olympic history, to be exact.

After winning 800m freestyle Olympic gold at the age of 15 in London, the American distance queen added another three individual titles (200m, 400m, 800m free) at Rio 2016. That monumental effort put her joint-second in the record books, behind Hungary’s five-time individual Olympic champion Krisztina Egerszegi.

With the women’s 1,500m freestyle set to make its debut in the Olympic programme at Tokyo 2020, the 24-year-old could win another four individual gold medals in Japan, and should comfortably overtake Egerszegi.

Ledecky has stated that she is also keen to compete in the 4x200m freestyle relay in Japan. If she were able to win gold medals in all five of her events at the upcoming Olympics, taking her overall tally to 10, she would become the most successful female athlete in Olympic history. Gymnast Larisa Ltynina is currently in top spot with nine. The American swimmer would move up to second across both sexes, only behind compatriot Michael Phelps’ 23.

That’s not all. Ledecky's resume also has 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle world record holder on her resume, with a grand total of 15 FINA World Championship gold medals.

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Failing, to succeed

But what is the secret to her astonishing success? What has driven her to become one of the most dominant athletes on the planet over the past five years?

“Each day I work on getting better, and even the bad days have something good that comes out of them,” Ledecky told Forbes. “One thing my coaches say is that I fail spectacularly in practice — and that’s something that I actually work toward.

“I am pushing the limits and am so aggressive, or trying to hit certain times, that there is a chance that I might fall off and not make those goals. And that I push myself to a breaking point.

“Sometimes I have a great Monday and Tuesday but by the end of it, I’m dealing with the cumulative effect of pushing it hard.”

That’s right. Ledecky pushes herself so hard in training that her body sometimes literally fails. She tries to take her body to places nobody has ever been before, and that is the true secret to her success.

“I just keep setting goals for myself,” she continued. “That probably sounds easier said than done, but I have always had my eyes set on something more.

“I have my goals for Tokyo now, and that keeps me motivated. But typically I only share those specific goals with my coach!”

Motivated by doubters

Ledecky rarely fails in competition, but the only question mark of her career came at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, Republic of Korea.

A viral illness saw the American finish second to Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the 400m. Ledecky then pulled out of the 200m heats and 1,500m final, before mustering up all of her remaining strength to win the 800m and help the USA claim silver in the 4x200m freestyle relay.

Despite Ledecky’s obvious fitness struggles in Republic of Korea, there are still some voices in the swimming world wondering if Ledecky may have lost her 'mojo'. But if recent performances in the run-up to the Games in 2021 are anything to go by, Ledecky is nearing her best form once again.

In April 2021, she swam a world-leading 3.59.25 400m time at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo, ahead of Titmus’ 4:01.34 from the same month. Ledecky then secured another world-leading time of 15:40.55 in the 1,500m to underline her status as the heavy favourite in all of her events in Tokyo.

“I want to kick off the U.S. on a good note for [the 1500],” the Stanford University graduate said at the Team USA Media Summit. “There have been so many great female distance swimmers who have come through the U.S. that haven't had that opportunity [to swim the 1,500 at the Olympic Games]. So I want to take advantage of that opportunity and really get us started on a great note there.”

Gold medallist Katie Ledecky of the United States poses during the medal ceremony for the Women's 800m Freestyle Final at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Gold medallist Katie Ledecky of the United States poses during the medal ceremony for the Women's 800m Freestyle Final at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

Logistical battle at Tokyo 2020

Ledecky’s pursuit of winning five gold medals at the Olympic Games will be an upstream battle.

Not only will she be missing the support of her family, who she has not seen for a year, but she also has an extremely taxing schedule.

For example, her 200m and 1,500m heats take place in the same evening session. Assuming she qualifies, the finals of both events are in the same session a day later.

“I would point out that the men do not have that double, so any male swimmer who wants to compete in all [the freestyle] events does not have to double,” she pointed out at the media summit.

If Ledecky qualifies to compete in all five of her events (including the 4x200m relay), in Tokyo, she will clock up a lung-busting total of 6,200m over seven days. By comparison, Michael Phelps won eight Olympic gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games swimming 3,300m in eight days.

But if there’s anyone that can do it, it’s Ledecky, and she lives for challenges like these. After all, it’s the reason she fails in training.