To fans of swimming across America and likely the world, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart junior Katie Ledecky is a superstar. While she's not yet 17, she has completely rewritten the sport's record books in the distance freestyle events since breaking out of relative obscurity as a 15-year-old Olympic gold medalist in London in August 2012 — she broke a 23-year American record en route to her win in the 800-meter freestyle.
But Ledecky doesn't act any differently — except that she might appear a bit more comfortable in front of the television cameras. She certainly doesn't flaunt her continually growing list of accolades, though — sometimes it seems if she weren't prodded, she might not mention them at all — and she doesn't seem to expect any special treatment.
“Swimming is something Katie grew up with and she became very good at it. She's worked very hard to get where she is,” Stone Ridge swimming and diving coach Robert Walker said. “You can be on the outside looking in and think maybe [her life] isn't normal, but this is her world and it's just normal to her.”
As a seemingly permanent fixture on Team USA, at least for the foreseeable future, Ledecky has become a world traveler. She was in Barcelona, Spain just before the start of school for the world championships and is off to Glasgow, Scotland this week to represent the United States against a compilation of some of the top Europeans in the Duel in the Pool. But after every trip overseas, every gold medal, every prestigious award and every television appearance, Ledecky returns home and gives just as much of herself to her peers, her Stone Ridge teammates.
There was never any question she would, Ledecky said. After all, she, at the root of it all, is just a high school junior who wants to compete on a team with her friends and classmates and represent her school in the best way possible. In 2012-13, she led Stone Ridge to its first Independent School League title since 2003 and fourth place at the Washington Metropolitan Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championship, the Gators' best showing in recent years and quite an accomplishment for one of the field's smaller teams. Ledecky said she is hopeful the team can achieve equal or better results this winter.
“[Her commitment to the Stone Ridge team] just shows how grounded she is, it shows her character and the type of person that she is,” Walker said.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what happened to Ledecky in the summer of 2012, but that Olympic gold was just the beginning of what has been a spectacular two years in her blossoming swimming career — it seems like she breaks a new record every time she competes these days.
This summer, she won four gold medals at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Spain, setting world records in the 800-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle (by more than six seconds) and an American record in the 400-meter freestyle. Her results earned her the FINA Trophy for the highest scoring woman in the competition. At the 2013 AT&T Nationals earlier this month, she broke the American mark in the 1,650-yard freestyle by nine seconds, won the 500-yard freestyle and finished runner-up to Missy Franklin in the 200-yard freestyle.
“I think [my breakout] was just an accumulation of a number of things,” Ledecky said. “It's been a lot of hard training. My coach [Bruce Gemmell] this past year has been great, I have a great training group made up of mostly juniors and seniors from the area that push me every day. After London, I increased my dry land and had a more structured dry land program [that is geared toward flexibility and strength, not weight lifting] that really helped my strength.”
Ledecky said her success hasn't resulted in any added pressure, though her rapid improvements do become harder to top. Every record she has set serves as motivation to continue dropping time and finding new ways to get better, Ledecky said.
It seems unlikely that anyone will beat Ledecky in high school competition but there doesn't seem to be any bitterness from area swimmers. Sure, everyone wants to win races, but the opportunity to share the pool with one of the world's greatest swimmers is one Washington, D.C.-area high school swimmers seem to have embraced. Maybe it's because this region is used to international-level talent, Walker said. Or maybe it's because despite Ledecky's rising star, she is still just the Katie they grew up training with.
“You want people like that there, you don't want to push those people away,” Walker said. “You get to say Katie Ledecky swam at Metros and no one else gets to say that. I don't see the negativity at all. We are all talking about the same thing, she is bringing swimming into the picture.”