Katie Ledecky had a busy six days between first earning her spot on the United States Olympic Swim Team with a win in the 800-meter freestyle at the July 1 Team Trials in Omaha, Neb., and departing for a month-long journey July 7.
At the top of that to-do list, however, was something that had nothing to do with getting herself ready for this summer's Olympic Games.
The morning of her July 7 departure to Tennessee, where she trained with the team for a week before heading to Europe, Ledecky was on the Palisades Swim Club pool deck in Glen Echo watching her older brother, recent Gonzaga College High School graduate Michael, compete in his final Montgomery County Swim League home dual meet.
“It was really important for me to give [Michael] a hug after his last home meet swim in MCSL,” said Ledecky, a Bethesda resident and rising sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. “He was the first person to give me a hug on deck at Omaha after the 800-meter free. He has been a loving brother and an incredible role model for me.”
As everything rapidly changes around her — at 15 she is the youngest of the United States' 530 athletes headed to London — Ledecky, who was interviewed on live national television for the first time after her win in Omaha, has managed to keep her priorities intact.
Ledecky is a rare natural talent, Stone Ridge swimming and diving coach Robert Walker said during the winter season. But aside from her physical attributes, the unique ability to remain grounded and keep things in perspective has helped propel her to the top of USA Swimming in a year's time. She only first achieved the 800-meter qualifying time for the Olympic Trials last summer.
“The same 20 kids can come to swim practice, and why does Michael Phelps then go on to set world records? Why did Michael Jordan excel at basketball more than any other person at that time? It's a combination of a lot of things. Work ethic and body type top the list,” Walker said. “Somewhere along the line when [Ledecky] dove into the water she did something different than everybody else, or not many people ahead of her. Katie does something right in the water that's different than everybody else.”
Ledecky, swimming on the grandest stage of her young career, remained remarkably composed against a field of veterans to finish the 800-meter race in a meet-record time of 8 minutes, 19.78 seconds. That was a lengthy 2.09 seconds ahead of former Bishop O'Connell (Va.) swimmer Kate Ziegler, who clinched her second consecutive Olympic berth with a second-place finish.
Five days earlier, Ledecky barely missed the cut in the 400-meter freestyle final, where she finished third despite breaking a 24-year old national record for her age group previously held by Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans.
“I took the 800-meter free race out fast, perhaps faster than my coach would've liked initially. But once I was out fast, I just decided to go with it,” Ledecky said. “Right after the race, it felt a little unbelievable. But it has begun to sink in now. I feel honored and proud to be able to represent our country as just one part of a great team.”
Though Ledecky, who started swimming at Palisades at age 6, has been labeled as a distance freestyler, she qualified for Olympic Trials in four events: 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyle. That versatility and the strong aerobic capacity that she has built up through training nearly every day, she said, was crucial in her victory.
With this year's qualification, Ledecky is in prime position to compete in the next three Olympics. This year, she said, will be a fantastic learning experience in the water and beyond.
Though she has no particular expectations regarding where she will finish, she said she can only hope to bring her best swim to London and be part of a great overall team performance.
Despite all her success, Ledecky is still committed to her MCSL and high school teams. Participating in the MCSL, she said, was formative in her swimming career and she feeds off the support of her Palisades and Stone Ridge teammates.
Ledecky is tremendously humble despite her stardom and that, Walker said, is what makes her even more special.
“I remember we came to the first meet [this past winter] and no one knew how to talk to Katie at her first high school meet, if you're supposed to sit next to her on the bleachers or talk to her before a race,” Walker said. “But she's just a teammate. She's out there cheering for everyone from the slowest person to the fastest. If there's a Stone Ridge girl out in Lane 8 fighting for sixth place, Katie is out cheering for that person. She just carries herself so well.”