Dominant 20: Katie Ledecky on her swimming origins, breaking records and her one fear

Katie Ledecky is No. 5 on ESPN The Magazine's list of the most dominant athletes of the year. John Huet

Katie Ledecky is No. 5 on ESPN The Magazine's list of the most dominant athletes of the year. Click here for more on the Dominant 20. Subscribe today!

Stanford psychology major Katie Ledecky, 21, has 14 world records and five Olympic golds, the first coming in 2012 at just 15 years old. The world's most dominant swimmer recently turned pro but has seemed professional for decades, because of her unerringly levelheaded demeanor and because she swims so far ahead of the competition it's as if she's in her own pool. She holds the world's eight fastest times in the 1,500-meter freestyle and has shattered her own records by staggering margins. Her six-year, $7 million deal with swimwear company TYR and her 2018 cover of National Geographic, the first for a female Olympian, prove that nice girls not only finish first -- they rule.

Allison Glock: Why swimming?

Katie Ledecky: My mom swam in college, but she never pushed me into the sport. She wanted me to feel comfortable in the water, so she taught my brother and me how to swim from a pretty early age. When I was 6, we joined a summer-league pool. We didn't really know anybody, and my mom thought that the fastest way for us to meet people would be to join the swim team.

AG: So your unrivaled swimming career started as a way to make friends?

KL: [Laughs] Pretty much, yeah. I played a number of sports growing up. Basketball, soccer. I eventually realized that I was picking swimming over basketball practice. I also broke my arm playing basketball, so that may have contributed a little bit to it. [Laughs]

AG: Did you have an immediate kinship with the water?

KL: No. I didn't drop into the pool on day one a great swimmer. For my first summer of league swimming, my only goal was to be able to do the 25 free without stopping to wipe my nose or catch my breath. And by the end of the summer, I was able to do that.

AG: When did you first recognize how good you could be?

KL: Swimming wasn't something that came naturally, but I kept working at it, and by the time I was 8, I'd broken a couple of county records. Then by the time I was 10, I was breaking some Potomac Valley [Maryland] swimming records, kind of a bigger deal.

AG: You haven't stopped breaking records since. What do you think makes you so dominant?

KL: I've always had a knack for goal-setting. I don't really compare myself to others. For me, it's about not being afraid to set scary goals, goals that most people never even dream of, and then going out and chasing them.

AG: What's an example of a scary goal to you?

KL: In 2014, I set my goals for Rio in 2016 to go 3:56 or better in the 400 free and to go 8:05 or better in the 800 free. And back then, those times were 10 seconds faster than what anyone else had ever done before and seven seconds faster than what I'd done.

AG: And you met those goals.

KL: [Laughs] Yeah. It's kind of crazy for me even to think about. I met them right on the nose in Rio.

AG: You were the youngest U.S. swimmer at the 2012 and 2016 Games. Was that an additional challenge?

KL: My first time traveling internationally to swim was the 2012 Olympics! That was a little daunting. I always loved watching the Olympics on TV, so to have a front-row seat was just incredible. My race wasn't until the second-to-last day. I watched all my teammates win medals, and that inspired me.

AG: Do you view yourself as wiser than your years?

KL: The family that I have, the education that I've had, and being a student throughout my swimming career, I think all of that has helped me stay pretty grounded. At the same time, going through the Olympics at age 15 and coming back with a gold medal ... you do grow up a little faster than some other people. At the end of the day, I try to do things the right way in and out of the pool, and hopefully that shows.

AG: What would you call your defining quality?

KL: I'm driven. I'm motivated by myself and the benchmarks I set for myself and trying to be faster, better, stronger in every aspect of my life. That said, I try not to get too caught up in moments, not to be too excited about any one accomplishment. When I was younger and started breaking county records, that may have been a time when I realized I'm pretty good. But being great at age 8 doesn't mean you're going to be an Olympian. And the Olympics were never a goal of mine growing up.

AG: They weren't?

KL: No. It was never a dream of mine to get to that level. There are those Olympians who say that they have always dreamed of going, but that was never me. I just never pictured myself there. I only understood how to qualify for trials about a year before I did.

AG: Have you changed anything significant about your technique as your career evolves?

KL: My stroke probably changes every year, honestly. I made a breakthrough when I was about 14. Kinda this loping stroke. I only really breathe to one side. It's a way that I utilize my strength, which is my catch in the water, the underwater portion of my stroke. And I use my legs a lot more than most swimmers. I use the strength of my catch up front and then power behind me with my legs. After 2012, I started focusing on shorter events and expanding my range, different pacing and ways of managing energy.

AG: What's the one thing that people get wrong about swimming?

KL: That it's every four years. Swimming is every day, it's 10 times a week.

AG: What's your most joyful memory in the pool?

KL: Oh wow. Probably those first moments when I was just starting to swim summer league, honestly. When I was a kid. I clearly remember learning how to breathe, playing water polo or sharks and minnows. Those are really, really great memories.

AG: It's striking that those seminal childhood memories dwarf winning golds or breaking records.

KL: Certainly winning my first gold in 2012 was pretty surreal and joyful in a different way. But I keep things in perspective. It can be very easy to get wrapped up in ambition. But I think at the end of the day, it's still just a hobby for me. I got into swimming to meet people, and I feel like I've been able to do that at a level that I never imagined. Swimming is just something I try to have fun with.

AG: That's a really unique point of view for any pro athlete, let alone someone of your level and skill set.

KL: I'm just doing what I love and what I'm passionate about and trying to do it to the best of my ability. That's kind of the message that I have for kids. Find something that you love and pursue it to the best of your ability.

AG: When are you the happiest?

KL: When I'm at swim practice, surrounded by my teammates. I just love walking away from practice feeling like I've gotten better. That's been a constant in my life since I was 6 years old.

AG: Nothing seems to rattle you. Are you afraid of anything?

KL: Cats. [Laughs] I'm afraid of cats.