Katie Ledecky and the Power of Why Not

Katie Ledecky and The Power of Asking “Why Not?”

Swimmers often find themselves stuck with doubt when it comes to doing tough things in the water. Here’s a simple question to ask when you find doubt and uncertainty stopping you from excellence.

In the pursuit of excellence in the water, we often find ourselves staring at a tiled black line that mark the crossroads between potential and self-doubt.

While reading through Katie Ledecky’s autobiography, Just Add Water, I came across a passage that perfectly describes the power of asking “why not?” to help navigate those moments.

(It also closely mirrors an article I wrote a few years ago, Why Not You?)

Ledecky discusses the power of this simple question as she ascended towards GOAT status in the months and years following her initial triumph at the London Olympics in 2012, where she stunned the swimming world to win gold in the 800m free.

In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how she used that little question, the stratospheric results that radiated from it, and how the rest of us swimming mortals can steal this mental tip for faster swimming in our own lives.

Let’s dive in.

The Ledecky Slam

August 3, 2012.

Katie Ledecky is 15 years old and has qualified for lane three in the final of the 800m freestyle at the London Olympic Games.

Next to Ledecky, in lane four, Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain, hometown favorite and also favorite-favorite, with Adlington being the world record holder in the event.

Unlike the Ledecky we know today, who is NOS-boosting from the start, Ledecky doesn’t take the lead until the 200m mark.

Ledecky swimming to gold in London.

But once she takes it, the lead is never relinquished. Ledecky extends the lead bit by bit, hundred by hundred, until she hits the wall for gold, four seconds ahead of second place and just half a second off Adlington’s world record mark.

Ledecky, gold. Upset, confirmed.

Stateside, following her performance in London, Ledecky’s training and mindset begin to expand.


With her club team, NCAP (Nation’s Capital Swim Club), Ledecky was training with another international-caliber distance swimmer Andrew Gemmell, who had made the 2012 Olympic team in the 1500m freestyle.

With Gemmell in the next lane each day at practice, Ledecky began to ask herself that simple question: Why not?

Why couldn’t she keep up with him? Why couldn’t she race him over the practices, sets, and repetitions during training? Why couldn’t she achieve something that seemed impossible?

As Ledecky recounts in Just Add Water:

“As I was grinding away to keep up with him, I would ask myself, why not?”

The mantra soon became more familiar than the smell of chlorine:

“Keeping pace with the male swimmers? Why not? Shaving time off my records? Why not? Doing something significant every time I swim? Why not?”


“I knew if I visualized those goals, if I created an expectation for myself that I would improve, the odds of my doing so rose considerably. I applied this mentality whether the swim was a practice, a stop on the domestic Pro Swim Series tour, or a World Championship.”

The question expanded on what was possible, allowing Ledecky to stack up some crazy training in practice and freeing her up to swim without limiting expectations or pressures when stepping on the block.

Of course, “why not?” only works if you follow through and do the work in the pool.  

And if there is one thing Ledecky is renowned for, it’s a killer work ethic:

“Having the mindset that you can do something memorable will produce results—if you’ve done the work. And I always do the work.”

Goosebumps. (And yes, emphasis mine.)

Ledecky credits these changes in perspective and the resulting increases in performance during training for her performance at the 2015 World Championships.

At that meet, in Kazan, Russia, Ledecky uncorked a history-shattering performance, winning gold medals in the 200m, 400m, 800m, and 1500m freestyles, becoming the first swimmer to accomplish the feat at a major international meet.

The new benchmark colloquially became known as “The Ledecky Slam.”

Ledecky won her 800m and 1500m races in world record time, and she also won a gold medal in the 4x200m freestyle relay with her American teammates.

From there, Ledecky chiseled consistency into a dizzying amount of achievements in the pool.

Four gold medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Individual and team NCAA titles in 2017 and 2018. Five more Worlds gold medals in 2017. Defending her 800m Olympic title for the third time in 2020.

And on and on and on.

The Power of Why Not

Often, we get caught up in what we think is possible. Or what others tell us is possible.

And instead of allowing our full potential to shine through and pursue outrageous goals, we play it safe, stick with the intervals we know, and remain in our standard position in the lane.

Asking yourself “Why not?” invokes a curiosity that allows you to chase big things in the water without fear or limitation. Of exploring what’s possible without worrying about worst-case scenarios.

And no, they don’t have to be world records or multi-gold-medal performances at Worlds or the Olympics.

Things like:

  • Making every practice from now until the end of the season? Why not?
  • Giving a 9/10 effort during the main set every time I go to practice? Why not?
  • Choosing to use a positive mindset even when the workout stinks? Why not?
  • Taking steps to plan and meal prep to improve dietary habits? Why not?
  • Tracking and measuring my workouts to identify areas for improvement? Why not?
  • Adding one more training session to my weekly schedule? Why not?
  • Setting higher goals and implementing a commensurately ambitious process? Why not?
  • Focusing on swimming with excellent technique every stroke and every lap? Why not?
  • Going to sleep an hour earlier each night to maximize recovery? Why not?

Often, all it takes is for us to use the right question to see past perceived limitations in and out of the water.

Wrapping Things Up

By daring to envision something greater for our swimming, we can unlock new levels of growth and performance in the water.

Using “why not?” in your preparation and swimming is the first step to deke out limiting thoughts that are keeping you from excelling in the water.

The next time things get hard in the pool, or you are staring down a challenge longer than a 100m pool, ask yourself…

“Why not?”

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of YourSwimLog.com. He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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