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Katie Ledecky putting her education above earning potential

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The record-setting Katie Ledecky wants a pro swimming career, but “first I want to get an education.”
The record-setting Katie Ledecky wants a pro swimming career, but “first I want to get an education.”Clive Rose

RIO DE JANEIRO — Now that Katie Ledecky has won another four Olympic gold medals and broken her own world records again, what's her next challenge? Earning a varsity letter and a diploma at Stanford.

"I'll have to get all my stuff for my dorm and get everything ready," said the planet's best female swimmer, who's headed back to Maryland to decompress and repack before flying out to Palo Alto. "It'll be tough leaving home but I'm excited for the next chapter."

The question, as it is for every American teenage girl who wins a gold medal in a scholarship sport, is how long that chapter should last and whether and when she wants to start getting paid. Ledecky could have taken the money four years ago after she came out of nowhere to win the 800-meter freestyle in London. She could have taken it after the 2013 world championships, where she swept the distance freestyle events. And she certainly could have taken it last summer when she won all of the individual women's golds for the United States at the global meet in Russia.

But taking the cash takes you down a road that can't be walked back and Ledecky understood that. "I've really enjoyed being an amateur and I think there are some pressures that come with being a professional swimmer," she said. "And I don't think I was ready for that."

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Unless you're going to collect a quarter of a million dollars in endorsements, it doesn't make sense to forgo a full ride to a top college. While you still can enroll, you're on your own dime and you're outside of the varsity experience. What Ledecky cherished here, as much if not more than the gold medals, was sitting in the stands every night and cheering on her teammates and bringing home a relay "with three of my best friends in this sport" cheering on the deck above her.

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Ledecky will have that at Stanford. The Pac-12 dual meets against Cal and USC where every point is precious. The road trips to Pullman and Corvallis and Tempe. Not to mention hanging out with unchlorinated classmates every day. Had she signed a sponsorship contract, Ledecky would have had to give all that up.

"I'm only 19 and I don't feel like I need to represent something bigger than my teammates, coaches, friends, and family," she said. "Down the road I want to be a professional swimmer but first I want to get an education. These last four years would have been a little different if I'd been a professional, for sure."

This is not a decision that male athletes have to make since almost none of them are world-class at 16. Except for the occasional Michael Phelps, they take the scholarship, spend four years competing for Oklahoma or Penn State, and cash in later, if then. But particularly in swimming and gymnastics, where girls can become Olympic champions while still studying high school civics, the choice is presented early.

Aly Raisman turned pro months before she won her gold medals at the London Games. Simone Biles, who'd committed to UCLA, took the money more than a year ago. Laurie Hernandez, who's only 16, bypassed her Florida offer to turn pro just before these Games.

That choice makes sense for Olympic gymnasts, for whom collegiate competition would be a significant downgrade. Swimmers still can get enough of a challenge that it makes sense to do at least a couple of years, help your squad win an NCAA title, pile up half of your college credits, then turn pro and take another shot at the Games.

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That's what Missy Franklin did after winning her four golds in London. She enrolled at Cal, led the Golden Bears to a national championship, then went pro. While she had a forgettable experience here (one gold medal from a relay prelim), Franklin had little more to accomplish as a varsity competitor.

That's the decision for Ledecky. How much does she want to accomplish before she washes the chlorine out of her hair for the last time? She set her Rio goals three years ago — swim 3:56 or better in the 400 freestyle, break 8:05 in the 800, and win gold in the 200. "I achieved all of those," Ledecky said. "Time to set some new goals."

From here out, she's competing only against herself. Ledecky already has broken the world mark three times in the 400 free and five times in both the 800 and 1,500. Nobody was close to her here and there's nobody on the horizon. Unless she wants to start collecting short-course records on a variety of campuses, there's not much novelty that awaits.

Other than becoming the first woman to break eight minutes in the 800 ("That would be a pretty big drop, but I still believe anything's possible."), Ledecky could try to become the first swimmer of either gender to win every Olympic freestyle event from 100 meters upward. Ledecky did anchor the 4 x 100 relay to a silver despite coming in seventh at the trials. "I'm always pushing myself and seeing what I can do," she said. "That's been the biggest goal."

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Ledecky still is young and dominant enough that she can return to Olympus for a third or even a fourth time. Right now the academic calendar is the one that matters to her. "School doesn't start until the end of the summer," Ledecky observed. "At Stanford, you don't find out your roommate until moving day, which is kind of unique. I'll probably get antsy and want to get in the pool, splash around a little bit."


John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.