Katie Ledecky: rising above the noise in the swim for gold

At 19-years-old, Ledecky, the 2012 Olympic champion in the 800m freestyle, is poised to make history again in Rio. But get to know her outside the pool, and she’ll inspire you further still with the depth of her smarts and soul.

Katie Ledecky receives the Female Race of the Year award at the 10th annual Golden Goggles awards at JW Marriott Los Angeles at L.A. LIVE November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  Kevork Djansezian | Getty Images

Katie Ledecky has learned to drown out the noise. And when you are the fastest female freestyle swimmer in the country—perhaps even the fastest in the world— there is plenty of noise that follows you. But Ledecky has simply become accustomed to the whispers of admiration that swirl around her as she warms up before a meet; she is cool and calm as fans clamor her name from the stands. She has learned to ignore the pundits who want to speculate on her upcoming Olympic bid, her training schedule, her stoicism in and out of the pool. She says it doesn’t faze her much at all. “For other people to say what I should be targeting or what my goals could be? That’s between my coach and me,” She told Sports Illustrated in May 2016.

But everywhere Ledecky goes, it’s hard not to hear the soundtrack of possibility that plays in the background. The fans, her family, journalists—they can’t help but get swept up in the music of her success. Only Ledecky herself can tune it all out and shut it all down. The only thing she seems to hear is the rhythm of her heart and breath as she glides through the water, through every race—on her way to yet another victory.

At just 19-years-old, Ledecky, the 2012 Olympic champion in the 800m freestyle and a five-time gold medalist at the 2015 World Championships, is poised to make history. Or rather, more history. Ledecky is already the world record holder in the Women’s 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle. Each of those records were hard-fought wins, races where she smashed the previous record-holder’s time as if she were born to do nothing else.

Each time the previous record holder in the event had been no one other than Ledecky herself.

A foundation built on family and faith

It’s impossible to paint a picture of Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky, born March 17, 1997, without illustrating her deep love of family and faith. Growing up in Bethesda, Maryland, six-year-old Katie joined the swim team at her local swim club simply because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her older brother, Michael. And back then, she wasn’t even all that good at swimming.

Her parents, Mary Genevieve and David Ledecky, patiently supported their little girl as she kept her first race goals small. Just try to make it across the entire length of the pool without stopping, they urged their daughter. Six-year-old Katie had the frustrating habit of hanging on to the lane divider to rest during the freestyle sprint to the other side of the pool. But by the end of that first swimming season, Ledecky was completing the 25m Freestyle with ease.

I always pray right before a race. The prayer I say is the Hail Mary.”

By the time she finished high school at Stone Ride School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, she held every school swimming record, in every swimming event, with the exception of the 100-yard breaststroke. From there, her road to success on a national stage was imminent. Her parents are still in a state of disbelief over their daughter’s success. “We still kind of pinch ourselves that Katie’s at this level,” Ledecky’s mother Mary Gen told Sports Illustrated.

But Katie Ledecky, a faithful young woman who is as well known for her habit of saying a few Hail Marys before a race as she is for her 11 world records, seems to innately know that she is exactly where she is divined to be. “My faith has always been important to me,” Ledecky stated in 2014. “It defines who I am.” Ledecky attributes much of the peace and confidence that she draws upon in the pool to her strong relationship with God. She often addresses this openly in interviews, as she did when she spoke with her local Washington Archdiocese in 2012. “I always pray right before a race. The prayer I say is the Hail Mary. I also love going to Mass every week. It’s a great chance to reflect and connect with God. (My faith) has been a big part of my life since I was born.”

Ledecky’s parents remain another powerful influence in their daughter’s life, handling everything from the complicated nuances of their daughter’s daily schedule to simply driving her back and forth to practice, just to allow her a few extra minutes of time to decompress. It is a routine that Mary Gen, a former hospital administrator and David, an attorney, have perfected over the last decade, as their daughter became an increasing tour de force in the world of swimming.

Her older brother, Michael Ledecky, gave up his own swimming pursuit a few years ago, in favor of cheering on his sister in the pool. But Katie Ledecky is a big fan of her big brother, recently sharing her admiration over his success on social media as he graduated from Harvard, just this past spring. Way to go! #proudlittlesis, Ledecky tweeted.

The national stage comes into view

By the time Katie Ledecky was 13 years old, it was becoming increasingly clear to her community that she was someone worth watching in the water. She was beating much older swimmers in meets, young women who were competing at the college level—not to mention her own brother in the pool. Ledecky easily crushed her high school opponents, and it seemed as though no challenge in the pool was too great for her to handle. Yuki Suguiyama, her coach at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, where she still trains to this day, was conscious that there was something different about Ledecky. He saw in the 6-foot-tall gangly teenager a talent that was keenly self-aware—and a work ethic that was unparalleled. It took some fine tuning of her attack, an added aggressiveness in her kick to fully bring Ledecky’s potential to the surface.

Suguiyama wanted his protégé to approach her freestyle with a form more similar to that of a male distance swimmer, embracing her full sense of power in the pool. These changes worked. At her very first senior national competition, the 2012 Olympic trials in Omaha, Nebraska, Ledecky appeared almost out of nowhere to make the Olympic team by placing first in the 800m freestyle. In London, at the Olympic games, Ledecky’s time was third over all the heats for the 800m freestyle, qualifying her to swim for Gold. And swim for Gold she did—valiantly, beating the second place finisher by over 4 seconds and breaking American swimmer Janet Evan’s 1989 record time in the event of 8:16.22. From there, Ledecky has been almost unstoppable, racking up record times and collecting sweeping victories in the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle in races everywhere across the globe.

An average teenager—sort of

At the age of 15, Ledecky was the youngest member of the entire United States Olympic team in 2012. Winning a Gold medal at those games, along with the many other accolades that have come her way since then, has not changed the fact that Ledecky is still a teenager, contending with the very same issues of so many other young women her age. To adequately prepare for the 2016 Olympics, Ledecky chose to defer her enrollment to Stanford University, where she accepted a scholarship to swim under Coach Greg Meehan. As she maintains her rigorous training schedule for Rio, in the pool for nearly 25 hours a week and in the gym for another five, she takes classes at Georgetown University just to keep herself in the habit of going to school. “They keep me mentally engaged,” she told Vogue in May 2016.

Katie Ledecky could win four gold medals in Rio, making her only the third woman in U.S. history to achieve this feat.

Aside from her many hours in the water and dreams of Olympic Gold, Ledecky is pretty much a typical 19-year-old. She can pick out pop songs on the piano in her parents’ house, she eats omelets for breakfast. She goes to church with her family and enjoys watching Saturday Night Live. She wistfully wishes for more time just to be “normal” and hang out with her friends. But for all the reasons that she isn’t a typical teenager—the gold medal that she has already claimed, the 5 a.m. swimming practices while the rest of the world is still dreaming, the intrinsic drive that mirrors so many Olympic champions that came before her—Ledecky is anything but “normal.” That she is willing, at 19-years-old, to defer the comforts of teenage life for a chance at something magnificent … well, that alone makes Ledecky extraordinary.

Finishing strong

Ledecky’s current coach at Nation’s Capital Swim Club, Bruce Gemmell, is keenly aware that he is working with someone truly unique. But he attributes as much of Ledecky’s success to her hard work ethic and positive attitude as to her strength and skill. “As far as I’m concerned, the bigger story is that she’s a better person than she is a swimmer,” Gemmell told Vogue in early 2016. “We all know she’s a pretty good swimmer, but she’s just a better person.”

Ledecky will need to harness all of these qualities to win Gold in Rio, where she is already a favorite in the 200, 400 and 800 meter freestyles, as well as a likely member of the 4 by 200 freestyle relay team. As the games near, the noise around her ebbs and swells to a deafening pitch. Fans call out to Ledecky as she makes her way to the pool from the ready room at events, anxious to let their blonde-haired hero with the short bangs know that they are watching. Interviewers mention aloud what Katie Ledecky obviously already knows: that she could win four gold medals in Rio, making her only the third woman in U.S. history to achieve this feat. Ledecky just nods her head at the cadence of these voices, answers them politely and with kindness. But when she is in the pool, all of that noise floats a million miles away. When Katie Ledecky swims, she is peace and strength personified. The crowd can cheer and the critics can question. But in the pool there is only a girl at one with God, kicking hard and digging deep for one more win, barely making a sound.

Katie Ledecky of the United States competes in a heat for the Women’s 800m Freestyle during Swimming Trials on July 1, 2016

Katie Ledecky of the United States competes in a heat for the Women’s 800m Freestyle during the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials on July 1, 2016. Tom Pennington | Getty Images

 

Nicole Jankowski
Nicole Jankowski
Nicole Jankowski is a freelance writer with a penchant for vintage fascinators, Ernest Hemingway stories and people who laugh big. She is a mom to four kids and two inspiring step-kids. She has lived her entire life just outside of Detroit.

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