Katie Ledecky: Bethesda’s Golden Girl
Bethesda Magazine Interview
Katie Ledecky became an overnight sensation at the Olympic Games in London this past summer. And it took the 15-year-old from Bethesda just 8 minutes, 14.63 seconds to do so.
Although Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington had been favored to capture gold in the women’s 800-meter freestyle, Ledecky dominated her and the rest of the competition—maintaining the lead through 16 laps and breaking Janet Evans’ 23-year-old American record.
The young swimmer quickly became a media darling, doing dozens of interviews on TV and in major newspapers and magazines in the weeks following the race. Soon after returning home, she and two other local Olympians were honored at a celebration in downtown Bethesda. She threw out the first pitch for the Sept. 3 Washington Nationals game at Nationals Park, and she visited the White House on Sept. 14 with dozens of other Olympians.
Now a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, the 5-foot-11-inch teenager is happily immersed again in swimming practice, studies and spending time with friends. Although she takes a disciplined approach to training and schoolwork, Ledecky finds time to text her pals, manage her Twitter account (she created it after discovering that several fakes had popped up during the Olympics), and anticipate getting her learner’s permit when she qualifies to drive in December.
Fresh from lunch and sporting a ponytail and the Stone Ridge uniform of white polo shirt and blue-and-green plaid skirt, she spoke with us in the parlor of the school’s Hamilton House during her free period on a September afternoon.
You’ve talked about life returning to normal, but “normal” for you is a bit different than for the average teenager. Can you tell us about a typical day?
Sometimes I have morning practices, where I’m up at 3:55 a.m. I’m in the water at 4:45. I like feeling like you’re up before the rest of the world—getting your training in and working hard. It carries on into school, and into my second practice. But I only train in the morning twice, maybe three times a week.
And then from there I go to school. And then I have afternoon practice, right after school until 6.
Then I get home and I eat and I do my homework and I’m usually in bed by 9:30. I manage my time really well because of morning practices and just being able to control that schedule.
How did you train yourself to be so disciplined?
I guess just practice and experience and figuring out when to get things done. I need to get a certain amount of sleep, too, to be able to work out hard and study hard for the next day. It’s just what I like. It’s been working.
How long have you been swimming?
Since I was 6. I started with my brother in summer league swimming. Then I joined year-round that winter.
Do you remember what it was like before swimming became serious for you?
I still have some pictures in my mind of certain things: learning how to swim on the wall, learning how to breathe, just one of my first races. So it’s good to have those memories still.
Do you feel the same about swimming as you did when you were little?
Definitely. I guess it’s more competitive now. But it’s still really fun.
How old were you when you realized: “I’m really good at this”?
Probably when I was 9 or 10. That’s when I started dropping other sports. I think I broke my first Potomac Valley records then, when I was 10. I gradually increased [training]. I didn’t get into it right away. I started going to swimming over basketball or soccer. But it wasn’t like a conscious decision, like, “Let’s quit basketball, let’s quit soccer, let’s just do swimming.” I just started leaning toward swimming and focusing more on my swimming.
Did you set goals in those early years?
I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing. It was working, and I could see the progress in the pool, something you don’t always get with other sports. It’s objective; you can see exactly [how you are improving]. Obviously, when you’re training, you’re always looking at time and speed.
When did you start to think about training for the 2012 Olympics?
I got my first Olympic trials [qualifying times] last year. I improved a lot that summer and won a few events at junior nationals. Then in September I sat down with my coach and we were talking about Olympic trials, and he said, “Now, what would be the ultimate goal of that?” And he sort of forced me to say, “Make the Olympics,” and say, “OK, we’re just going to focus on that.” And he said he’d keep it our private goal. We were just working toward that, whether I thought I could or not.
Had you previously thought about trying to make the U.S. Olympic team?
It was sort of like, someday, maybe I could. But I don’t think I was so focused on 2012. Then, when he said that, I started to really believe in that. I had known what it would maybe take to make the Olympic team, so I had a good sense of what I needed to do to improve. And we set a plan. We really set steps on how to reach that. It was all about finding the right sets to do in practice and how fast I needed to go. I really learned how to train fast and push myself.
Did you look to any role models while you were training?
Not in particular. I just remembered all the Olympics I had watched on TV. Really, throughout that year, I wasn’t really focused on the Olympics too much. It was just: I’m going to train as hard as I can, and if it comes, then great. We’ll go from there and try to improve even more. It was just a way to get me going. Whether it happened or not would be fine because Olympic trials are really tough. You have to be on your “A” game. So I knew it would be tough. I didn’t have any particular role models. I remember watching on TV all the Olympics: 2000, 2004, 2008, watching Michael Phelps win eight gold medals in ’08. That was really cool.
Take us to the minutes before the 800-meter race.
I did a warm-up in the big pool for 35 minutes. Then I went back to the team area, put my fast suit on and got in the warm-down pool, which you don’t see on TV. I went to the ready room. They have TVs in there. The heats are in front of you. It’s a pretty quiet time. And Michael Phelps gave me a high-five there. I watched Missy [Franklin], and Missy broke the world record in the 200 back[stroke], and then Michael won the 100 [butter]fly.
Then [I was] walked out onto the deck. And it was really loud because I was right next to the British hero [Adlington]. I knew it was going to be like that. One of the coaches, on the first day we were at the London pool for a practice, he sort of put it out there: “They’re going to be going nuts for this girl, and you might just get a slight Wimbledon-style clap.”
So I was really prepared for it. I was actually a lot less nervous for the 800-[meter] final than I was for the prelims because I had that first race and it was out of the way. I knew what I needed to do. It was just that extra cheering that I knew would be different, and the field was incredible. I knew I just had to swim my own pace and stick to a plan and I felt awesome.
What were you thinking during the race?
I blanked out a little bit actually during the race. You don’t want to blank out too much because obviously you can blank out and not be paying attention. I knew I was ahead right from the start. You can see underwater when you flip. I just kept in the same rhythm. The commentators said I was too fast, but I knew I could stick with it if I did stick to my plan. I blanked out a little bit, but I just counted the laps and got through it. Around the 600-[meter] point, I was like, “Whoa, I’m ahead in the Olympics.” I didn’t put it out of my mind that someone could come and catch me until the 799-[meter] point and I touched. I just didn’t want to give up a little.
And when you knew you were far ahead, did you want to speed up and finish the race?
I didn’t want to speed up too much because then I could die or fall back. So I just kept with my rhythm. I was prepared for it. I had done everything I needed to do in my training. I was ready.
Then you touched the wall.
It was such an oh-my-gosh feeling. What is this? This isn’t right. This isn’t real. It was just so surreal, being able to do that on that stage, in that environment.
Rebecca Adlington, the British swimmer who was favored to win, was in the next lane. How did she react?
She was really gracious. Everyone in London was really gracious. It was a really neat Olympics. It was a really neat environment and event to be part of.
Is there one memory that really stands out from your experience?
The U.S. Olympic basketball team attended my race.
How are you dealing with being an international celebrity?
I’ve had a lot of fun celebrating with my classmates and teammates. But in my mind, I’m just a normal teenager. I’m going to train like I haven’t won an Olympic gold. I’m going to be a student like I haven’t won an Olympic gold, so I’m just going to be the same person I was before.
You are quite close to your brother, Michael, who’s now a freshman at Harvard. Do you miss him?
That’s probably the most different thing in all of this that’s happened. He has been a big part of my life. So it’s a little weird not having him in the house. But we’ve been keeping in close contact. He’s doing well.
What do you like to do when you have free time?
I like to spend time with my friends and family and just enjoy their company. We have a lot of fun together. Just normal stuff—going out to dinner, going to the movies, reading.
Do you have a favorite TV show?
I don’t watch TV, actually. I don’t have the time. I just don’t feel I need to do that. The only time I watch TV, really, is eating breakfast with my mom in the morning. We turn on the news or something like that.
How is school going?
I’m taking harder classes this year, but the workload is definitely manageable. I have six classes, plus ceramics. I probably lean more toward math and science. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.
Now that you’ve won Olympic gold, do you think other swimmers will react differently to you or treat you differently at meets?
I think [the meets] will be like every other one. I’m just going to swim like I always do.
What about endorsements? Will we see you on a Wheaties box?
I’m not going to take any because I want to keep the college swimming option wide open. That’s definitely something I want to do, and I want to swim for my high school team, too. And I just don’t want to have that kind of distraction.
Are you already focusing on the 2016 Olympics?
There are some things in between. There are world championships next year that I’m going to try to qualify for. That’s in Barcelona, around the same time as the Olympics [were held], so like July, August. There are quite a few things in between, and then the Olympics. I’ll do local meets. I was just named to the USA Swimming National Team, so I have some good opportunities there. So we’ll see.
How do you feel about living in Bethesda?
I’ve lived here my whole life. The people are really great. I have a lot of friends. I think it’s just a really close-knit and supportive area, even though it’s pretty big. It’s a great place to grow up.
Julie Rasicot is the associate editor for the magazine.