Catching Up with Kelsey Ditto
Photos courtesy John Todd & Dani Vernon/stanfordphoto.com
By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Kelsey Ditto spent many years wondering what life after swimming would be like.
What she discovered after retiring in 2011 was that it was surprisingly normal.
“I remember speaking to Josh Davis when I was 12 and had just joined Circle C (now Longhorn Aquatics),” said Ditto, a four-time gold medalist (400, 800 and 1500 freestyles and 800 free relay at the 2008 U.S. Open and member of the 2005 World Championship team. “He said something to the effect of ‘Swimming is what you do, not who you are.’
“I very consciously and deliberately tried to live that out, trying not to let swimming become my identity, sometimes with more success than others. However, I think this helped make the transition a bit smoother. I’m actually loving life after swimming, although I do definitely miss the daily challenge and seeing my teammates.”
After wrapping up her senior year of swimming at Stanford University with NCAA’s in 2011, Ditto planned to keep swimming at least through the summer’s World University Games in Shenzhen, China.
Her love for her teammates and enormous amount of pride wearing the Stanford block “S” cap had kept her motivated and interested in continuing swimming for years. And while she kept training every day, she quickly realized her heart and head weren’t in it anymore.
She walked away before WUGs with no regrets – knowing that her dream and priorities, which once included making the Olympic team, had shifted over time.
“Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but I literally would not change a single thing I’ve done because it all helped get me to where I am right now,” Ditto said. “I’m incredibly proud of everything I accomplished in swimming, especially my consistency. I made the National Junior Team when I was 14 and World Championships when I was 15 and was then a member of the U.S. National Team every year until I was 22 and retired. For me, that represents that it wasn’t just one season I worked hard or one lucky swim, but really years of hard work that paid off.”
“While I honestly don’t remember anything about my last race, I can remember every detail about my last practice. I felt so smooth and strong, and for some reason, when I touched the wall at the end, I remember thinking, ‘Well this feels about right.’ That was the feeling I wanted to go out on, that pure happiness and fulfillment I got from a practice. I remember I got out from the pool, told my coach, Lea Maurer, that I was ready to call it a career with swimming, gave her a big hug and soaked in the hot tub for an hour. I haven’t looked back once since that day and am so happy with how it ended.”
Ditto’s college swimming journey didn’t originate at Stanford, however. Originally, she enrolled at the University of Georgia and swam for the Bulldogs for two years but realized after her second year that she needed something different.
“Obviously, Georgia is a swimming powerhouse, so it was a very cool program to take part in,” Ditto said. “Everybody needs something different in their lives and what they’re looking for in college, so I absolutely think Georgia is the perfect fit for a lot of people, but it just didn’t happen to be the perfect fit for me.
“I was incredibly lucky to get another chance to go to Stanford, and I am forever indebted to Lea Maurer for making it possible and making me feel so welcome. Stanford feels like home to me and was the best choice for my personality. However, that’s not something you necessarily know as a 17-year-old before you ever go to college, so I learned an incredible amount about myself and wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
These days, Ditto is working for Google (yes, that Google) in Mountain View, Calif. Her main role involves helping small and medium-sized businesses take advantage of the company’s products. She’s also had the chance to take part in some interesting side projects that relate more to her political science major at Stanford.
She calls her experience working for the company “surreal” – saying that everything people hear about it and see portrayed in movies as an employer is quite accurate.
“I see self-driving cars most days, and I think the one thing people forget is that it actually is still work,” Ditto said. “For all the perks, we do work very hard, but it’s worth it. I firmly believe in the vision of the founders and am honored to get to contribute to that in even the smallest of ways.
“I’m surrounded by innovative, hard-working people every day and am blown away by how much I still have to learn and the impact that the company can have. What I enjoy most is my team, which is full of people a lot like me who are young and inspired by technology and eager to make a dent in the world. Just like a college team, I really feel like they have my back. It’s such a culture and mentality that I think is very similar to a great swim team.
Ditto also recently moved to her “dream city” – San Francisco – and said she loves exploring everything it has to offer.
“Every neighborhood is so unique; it’s like a treasure hunt,” Ditto said.
Another thing she loves about working at Google at the Mountain View headquarters is that the company recently opened an outdoor pool a few months ago that is available to employees.
While she knows competitive swimming is a gift from the past, she said she’s taken a dip in the pool a few times – and it still feels like home.
“It’s made it a lot easier for me to get in and swim occasionally,” Ditto said. “I try to get in two times a week but more just for relaxation and clearing my mind than anything else. Swimming is like meditation for me – it’s the one place I can really clear my mind and unplug. It’s an incredible release at the end of a long day. I can’t say I’m in racing shape, but I still love it and the feel of the water.”
Up next for Ditto is a return to Stanford next fall (2014) to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She was accepted her senior year but deferred for a couple of years to gain some work and life experience.
And while she admits business school wasn’t always on her career radar, she did know what kind of environment and goals motivate her – and that included graduate school.
Wherever life and career take her in the future, Ditto said she knows she can always rely on the many life lessons she learned during her many years in the water.
“I think the two things that have carried over most from my swim career are the work ethic and perseverance,” Ditto said. “Those traits are universally applicable and serve you well no matter what you do. Swimming requires an incredible amount of dedication and hard work, and that’s not something you just can shake when you move onto other ventures in your life or take on projects at work.
“Swimming gave me so much – the memories, the teammates, the trips, the time management skills. Those aren’t things that are easily forgotten, and I am eternally grateful to have had those opportunities.”