Katie Ledecky Wants to Fail

Jun 28, 2016

And that’s why she never loses… The psychology behind one of the toughest athletes on earth…

She knows what’s coming. She’s courting it, daring it every time she charges out there at kamikaze pace. It’s pain, and it’s coming soon, and Katie Ledecky doesn’t care. Is it masochism? Does she relish that excruciating sensation that most of us dread? Is her pain tolerance in some superhuman stratosphere? Or is she just that much more determined than anyone who dares to race her?

Whatever it is, we are witnessing something so rare and so special that comparisons lead to icons. To men like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan – competitors so committed to their mission they were willing to eat pain. Watching them, it appeared they were willing to die for it. Watching Ledecky feels the same way. You get the feeling that she is willing to suffer like they did. And that has made her unbeatable.

Over 15 races at major international competitions Ledecky has won 15 of them. Her record is spotless. NBC aired that graphic last night before her 400 free final. Expect that stat to get a lot more play in Rio.

The instinct when watching greatness is to assume those athletes exist on another plane of talent. It just comes easier to them, and sometimes it does. That’s how it’s always felt watching Phelps. Hell, he admits that he barely trained between 2008 and 2012, and feels like he underachieved in London – where he won four gold and two silvers. Not bad for phoning it in… Obviously, Phelps was able to coast during those years not just because of his otherworldly talent but because he put in the work throughout his youth, laying a foundation like no other. He maintained a steady diet of pain for many years under the whip of Bob Bowman.

Under Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky’s pain-based diet is built around the pursuit of failure. Each day in practice, that’s the goal – to fail. In a story last fall on Swim Vortex, Craig Lord reported on Gemmell’s remarks at the World Coaches Clinic in Cleveland.

He explained that “failure becomes a negative connotation” but not for Katie. “She fails in the practice environment more than anyone in the group,” said Gemmell. “Sometimes she fails spectacularly.” He went on to explain Ledecky’s “system of self-assessment in training” – A, B, or F. That is, success or total failure, nothing in between.

That ruthless self-assessment system is on display in Omaha. In the final of her 400 free it was hard not to gasp watching her taking it out that first 200. She flipped at the halfway point in 1:56.28 to the feet – a split that would surely be fast enough to place top six in the women’s 200 free and earn an Olympic berth in its own right. She knew what was coming next. To quote Walter Sobchak, she was entering a world of pain.

She was dying at the end, no question about it. She was tying up and Leah Smith wasn’t far from her feet. Victory was never in doubt, but she wasn’t pulling away after that suicidal front half. And even if Leah pulled dead even with her over those final meters, do you really think Katie wouldn’t have found another gear to grit out the win?

Ledecky is so fundamentally fearless I found myself thinking not of Ali or Michael Jordan, but that viral video of the honey badgerreputedly world’s most fearless animal. As the narrator says, “honey badger don’t care. Honey badger doesn’t give a shit.” The honey badger doesn’t hesitate to attack. It will go after much larger animals than itself. Its skin is so thick it can shrug off cobra strikes and withstand dog bites. It’s said that its fierceness has kept it from becoming endangered.

Which is to say it sounds a lot like the animal kingdom’s Katie Ledecky.