sideline chat

Katie Ledecky Is Swimming, and Studying

The five-time Olympic gold medalist is taking an infectious diseases class at Stanford and still finding a way to train.

Katie Ledecky before a race in Des Moines on March 5. Not long after that, her training site at Stanford University shut down.
Credit...Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

People throughout the sports world, from athletes to arena staff members, tell The New York Times how their lives have changed during the coronavirus pandemic.

It was a Saturday in California and the five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky had a competition later in the afternoon to look forward to. Not the swim meet in Mission Viejo that had originally filled her calendar for this past weekend, but a virtual game, Cards Against Humanity, with a group of roughly 20 relatives, mostly cousins, organized by her older brother, Michael.

Last month in Des Moines at a tuneup meet for the Olympic trials, Ledecky produced her fastest 1,500-meter freestyle since May 2018, buoying her prospects of winning as many as five more Olympic gold medals, including the “Ledecky Slam” in the 200-400-800-1,500 freestyles, at the Tokyo Games. But within a week of returning to her Stanford training base from Iowa, she was scrambling to find pool space after the university facilities shut down because of the coronavirus crisis. The Olympics have been postponed a year and the college remains shut down, but Ledecky, who is from Bethesda, Md., and her training mate, the four-time Olympic medalist Simone Manuel, continue to swim daily in a family’s two-lane, 25-yard backyard pool a short drive from the Stanford campus. Aside from her daily swim, Ledecky, 23, is sheltering in place at her two-bedroom apartment near Stanford but staying busy.

After taking a year off school to focus on her Olympic preparation, Ledecky, a psychology major at Stanford, re-enrolled in online classes for the spring quarter, which began April 6 — 13 days after the Olympics were postponed. The four courses she is taking include one on infectious diseases.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.

Q: How did you come to take an infectious disease class?

Ledecky: It’s Global Change and Emerging Infectious Disease, and it actually fulfills my last general requirement. It’s a lot about the different environmental and social factors that cause these outbreaks. They go through SARS and MERS and H.I.V., but there’s definitely a focus on coronavirus. Our professors are giving us insight on the data that they’re tracking. It’s a lot about the bats and the markets and learning how to calculate transmission rates and contractibility and all those different things. It’s been really fascinating.

How much are you venturing outside?

I’ve been able to swim at somebody’s backyard pool and that’s about a five-minute drive away, and that’s basically the only time I go out. I feel lucky that I’m able to get my aerobic workout in from that so I don’t have to do any running or cycling. I got some bands and a couple of weights and a pull-up bar. I have a tiny balcony, and there’s one part of it that has a little bit of space, so that’s where I do my dryland to get a little more fresh air.

I haven’t gone to a grocery store in about a month. I’ve just been using grocery delivery apps. I’ve been doing that and HelloFresh, which U.S.A. Swimming got us for a discount at one point so I signed up for it. You pick three recipes per week, and each has two servings, so I get two meals out of each. I’ve been getting all my meat out of that and then I get snacks and food for breakfast and lunch from the grocery stores.

You swam so well in Des Moines the first full weekend of March. How do you process everything that has happened since?

I felt really good about my swims and felt it was indicative of how I was training. It was nice to see that starting to show in meets. I was excited to get back to work. It’s tough when you’re doing well and feeling good about things and then things change. But I feel good about where I was at and feel I’ll be able to maintain that, and replicate that and remember how that felt.

There’s so much uncertainty about the next year: What meets will we have? What will our next meet be? Will we be able to train long course? Will we be able to train as a team and with other people again? All of that. It’s hard to really think about the next thing so I’m just thinking day by day.

I’ve been doing a lot of virtual video calls with other teams and groups and it’s tough to see the younger athletes struggling with it, who have such a love for the sport and it’s been so much a part of their routine and their social life and all of it.

Do you worry about the ripple effects on the sport when it’s already been announced that outdoor pools will be shuttered this summer in New York?

I don’t know what’s going to happen to the summer leagues like the one that I got my start in. That’s a huge gateway for the sport, the way a lot of young kids find their way into it. That’s a year lost on that. I worry about small club teams. Even just thinking about how workouts are going to change when things get back to normal. Will teams have to limit the number of people in lanes? Maybe groups will only be able to swim once a day instead of doubles because they have to extend out the training times. I think it’s going to change some of the mental aspects of training in the sport.

What is the one non-swimming activity you are most looking forward to being able to do once the lockdown is lifted?

I think seeing my family. I don’t know if that will mean I travel to see them or they travel to see me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to give them a hug, but just being able to be with them will be nice. It’s even harder to think of my extended family, especially my two grandmothers. Will I see them again? That’s harder to think about. We’re all staying in pretty good touch. We’ve been watching Mass together on Sundays with my grandma in North Dakota. We get together over Zoom and share a screen and live-stream Mass.

During the time right before the lockdown, I considered going to other parts of the country, even North Dakota to my grandma’s house because there’s an indoor pool there. But I ultimately decided to stay here. It just got to the point where there really wasn’t much open anywhere and it’s probably better not to travel if I don’t need to.