Three years after American Bobby Finke stunned the world by coming from behind to seize Olympic gold in both the men’s 800m and 1500m free events in Tokyo, he says, “nothing’s really changed” about his stroke – or his tactics, “because there really isn’t a race strategy.”

But the truth is that, two major things have changed for Finke. One: he graduated from the University of Florida in December 2023 with a degree in construction management, so now he can focus on training full time. And two: he’s been training with one of the greatest US distance swimmers in history: 36-time world and Olympic medallist Katie Ledecky who moved to Gainesville in late 2021 to train under the guidance of Finke’s college coach, Anthony Nesty, a 1988 Olympic champion for Suriname who is also the US Olympic men’s head coach for Paris.

One day, Finke distinctly remembers Nesty calling him and Florida teammate Kieran Smith up to his office.

“He was like, ‘Katie is looking for a new place to train,’” Finke said. “We never thought something like that would happen because she was finding success at Stanford, but it makes sense. Florida’s distance program was on a big rise. Why not bring it together?”

Nesty added, “I think she wanted a different challenge and the only people that could [were men]. Katie has to swim with men. That’s the bottom line. And when you have a group like us – she saw those guys for four-and-a-half weeks at the [Tokyo Olympic training camp where the whole US team trained as a group]. She liked the way I coached and how those guys carried themselves day-to-day,” Nesty said.

Image Source: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Since her arrival, Finke said, Ledecky has “added a lot to the programme” (which also includes sprint phenoms such as Caeleb Dressel, a seven-time Olympic gold medallist and 15-time world champion).

“She’s showing us what’s possible,” Finke said. “We’re all trying to get to Katie’s level.”

“She’s showing us what’s possible. We’re all trying to get to Katie’s level.”
By Bobby Finke on Katie Ledecky
Image Source: Training mates Katie Ledecky and Bobby Finke flank fellow Team USA gold medallist Lydia Jacoby after the 2021 Golden Goggle Awards that took place in Miami Beach, Florida (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

At Florida, the distance group has 10 practices a week, including the notoriously grueling Friday afternoon workouts when everyone else has the day off.

“They hate it to begin with, right?” Nesty laughed. “Everybody [else] is hanging out. The Florida weather’s beautiful. And they have to come in and bang out 6000 meters – maybe it’s three 2000s or four 1500s or six 1000s – but never anything shorter than 1000. And at each distance, they have to focus on something – like a negative split, or descending [times] during three consecutive 100 meters.

“Katie starts out really fast and I don’t want Katie to beat me, so I start going out really fast, too,” Finke said. “Then we’re just cranking through it and it ends up being like, ‘How fast can we finish?’”

In a way, it reminds Finke of the reason he became a distance swimmer in the first place.

“I was tricked into doing distance,” he said. “I’ve got two older sisters. They did distance. I wanted to be like them when I was younger so I followed them,” he said. “Lucky me.”

Now, at age 24, “The only person [in the group] that’s head-to-head with Bobby is Katie,” Nesty said. “Most of the time, they start together and Bobby gets faster than Katie throughout the set, but sometimes she gets faster.”

“There’s definitely times when she’s beaten me,” Finke confessed. “Not much – maybe 30 seconds to a minute over the course of [70] minutes (with two minutes of rest between reps). That’s as much as I can get her by – at my best!”  Finke said.

“Those guys can’t take a break because Katie doesn’t take a break,” Nesty said. “Katie ‘brings it’ EVERY day. Those guys hate it!”

“Those guys can’t take a break because Katie doesn’t take a break. Katie ‘brings it’ EVERY day. Those guys hate it!”
By Coach Anthony Nesty on what the Katie Ledecky dedication effect brings to the team

Bring it?  On a one-to-10 scale of effort, Nesty said, “Even if you’re the best group, you’re not going to bring it to 10 all the time, but Katie does – ALL the time.  Bobby will give you 10s, but if he can go 8 or 8½, he will give you an 8½ .  Even then, he does some awesome stuff. His attitude is solid.”

That’s just part of the reason Nesty recruited Finke the year he began coaching under 2012 US Olympic coach Gregg Troy at Florida.  Even as a 17-year-old, Finke’s times were popping. “He was the best US kid in the 800, 1000, 1500, 1650 – by miles,” Nesty said.

In addition, Finke made the cut to represent the US at the 2017 World Aquatics Championships [at age 17] between his junior and senior years of high school.

“He’s obviously matured,” Nesty said, “but Bobby’s still Bobby. Fun, hard-working, good kid from a great family. Cares about his teammates. Will do anything for his teammates.”

Image Source: Al Bello/Getty Images

Still, when Finke won gold in Tokyo – not once, but twice, Nesty said he – like everyone else – was a bit surprised.

“Of course!” Nesty laughed. “Everybody thought US distance swimming was forgotten because we haven’t had [men] compete at a high level in the 400, 800, and the 1500 so when we got to the pre-Olympic camp, I pulled [Bobby and Kieran] aside and said, ‘ You two are the best prepared athletes from the US. I said it from the time we hit camp all the way up to the meet, 100 times, so they knew what to expect. They knew how difficult the challenge would be, and they welcomed the challenge.

Image Source: Bobby Finke competes in the Men's 800m freestyle on Day Three of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials (Al Bello/Getty Images)

“In US team camp, you see things in practice that you just know: this guy’s going to be incredible when the meet starts. You see things that are unbelievably fast and consistent. Stuff Bobby did at camp in Hawaii and the camp in Japan prior to competing in Tokyo was the best I’ve seen – from him, from Kieran. Clearly, they were on a path to do something special.

“They were crushing everything,” Nesty said.  (Smith took Olympic bronze in 400m free.)

As for Finke’s finishing pace, Nesty said, “We talk about that in practice all the time: go to your seventh gear. Whatever you have left, it’d better be good. The bottom line is: Bobby always has something extra to give toward the end. Always.”

“We talk about that in practice all the time: go to your seventh gear. Whatever you have left, it’d better be good. The bottom line is: Bobby always has something extra to give toward the end. Always.”
By Anthony Nesty on Bobby Finke's knack for finishing fast

After winning two Olympic gold medals, though, what tops that?

Finke said, “I don’t know. The main [thing] is that I was able to pursue this career financially and keep going. My sponsors [such as Tyr and Ralph Lauren] have been amazing to me. I get to keep doing what I love.”