When an athlete is poised to become a huge Olympic star, it’s only natural to wonder what might come next.
Hosting “Saturday Night Live,” perhaps? Maybe a reality show?
Not so with Katie Ledecky.
She might be one of the world’s greatest swimmers, but everything else about her seems downright ordinary.
There is zero interest in the spotlight, just an insatiable desire to keep going faster in the pool.
The 19-year-old doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, perfectly content to ride to practices and meets with her parents. She enjoys playing board games; no video games for her. She’s worked with a charity that collects bicycles and ships them to developing countries. She’s a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, despite the generation gap.
Talk about a parent’s dream.
When someone brings up the idea of becoming a big star away from the pool — anyone up for show called “Kickin’ It With the Ledeckys?” — Katie and her father erupt in laughter.
“Yeah, that’ll happen,” the swimmer said, rolling her eyes.
“You’ve got to get to know us a little better,” David Ledecky interjected.
“They can come watch us play a game of Scrabble,” Katie added. “That’s about it.”
There’s nothing ordinary about Ledecky when she dives into the pool. Four years ago, not long after arriving on the international scene, she stunningly captured her first Olympic gold medal with a dominating victory in the 800-meter freestyle at London.
Since then, she’s basically been unbeatable in a growing repertoire of freestyle events. She captured four golds at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, five at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, five more at last year’s worlds in Kazan. She holds the world record in the 400, 800 and 1,500 free (the latter a non-Olympic event), and will be among the favorites in the 200 free at Rio.
Her growing prowess in the 100 free gives her, at the very least, a shot at competing on two relay teams in Brazil, which could set her up for a haul of five gold medals. Only 10 athletes in the history of the Olympics have captured that much gold in a single games, a list that includes such towering figures as Michael Phelps, Eric Heiden and Paavo Nurmi.
More impressive to those she competes against is her ability to pull off historic times pretty much any time she’s in the water.
Back in 2014, she eclipsed her own world records in both the 800 and 1,500 free at a low-level meet in suburban Houston. This past January, she set another mark in the 800 at a grand prix meet in Austin, Texas.
In a sport where swimmers normally taper their training to be at their best only for the biggest competitions, Ledecky has hit a reset button on the way things are done.
“It’s been incredibly inspiring watching her,” said fellow American star Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals in London. “I feel like she’s really re-writing the rules of the sport.”
In suburban Washington, D.C., Ledecky trains each day with coach Bruce Gemmell and the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, a collection of mostly younger swimmers who can only dream of reaching her heights one day.
Over the course of a two-hour practice at the Georgetown Preparatory School, an elite boys academy that has turned out famous alumni ranging from actor John Barrymore to former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, she might swim close to 9,500 yards in the 25-yard pool, a monotonous, back-and-forth grind that separates the true champions from those who only think they’re willing to pay the price.
Because there’s no one in her class on the female side, she does most of her head-to-head training against the coach’s son, Andrew Gemmell, who competed in the 1,500 free at London and is hoping to qualify for his second Olympics.
Like Franklin, the younger Gemmell realizes he’s in the presence of an otherworldly talent.
“It’s fun being part of that,” he said. “It could be 40 years before we see someone like her again.”
In practice, Gemmell is usually the faster swimmer.
But not always.
“Any guy who thinks that they are going to be faster than Katie all the time is lying to himself,” Gemmell said. “It definitely keeps me honest. There is a little pride sometimes to not want to get beat by a girl. I hope I help her, too. … I don’t know if she would admit it, but I think, yeah, beating the boys is something fun for her. I think she realizes it’s pretty unique, it’s a little extra edge. And the fact of the matter is, not many girls can train with her, so she’s got to be racing with the guys.”
So, what makes Ledecky so special?
It’s not some unique physical characteristics, like Franklin’s huge feet or Phelps’ long torso and imposing wingspan. At around six feet tall, Ledecky wouldn’t be called diminutive, like U.S. distance queen Janet Evans, but there’s nothing that really stands out.
“She’s relatively short on a world-class scale,” Bruce Gemmell said during a recent meet in Atlanta. “She’s got small hands. She’s got small feet. She doesn’t have an excessive wingspan. That’s not it.”
David Ledecky points to a family work ethic that was passed down by Katie’s grandparents. Her paternal grandfather was a Czech immigrant who came to the United States in 1947 to build a better life. Her maternal grandfather won a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for his valiant service in the Pacific during World War II; afterward, he returned home to become a doctor in his hometown for some 40 years.
“I don’t know if I would call it a competitive streak in her, but I think there’s a lot of determination,” David Ledecky said. “I always like to give credit to her grandparents. I think all four of her grandparents are pretty special people.”
Katie comes from a family where high achievement is expected. Her father is an attorney. Her mother, Mary Gen Ledecky, was a top college swimmer. Her older brother, Michael, will be graduating from Harvard next month. In the fall, Katie will head off to Stanford to begin her college life, a transition she delayed a year to prepare for the Olympics, though she did take a couple of classes this past fall at Georgetown — History of China and Comparative Political Systems — just to stay in somewhat of an academic frame of mind. She is still pondering what her major might be, mentioning history and psychology as possibilities.
“Not surprisingly, I get asked to do a lot of talks on her,” her coach said. “When I’m preparing to do the talk, I always say to my wife, half-kiddingly, that I want to say, ‘She works her ass off and she’s tough as nails. Does anybody have any questions?’ My wife is like, ‘They probably won’t pay you for an hour’s talk to say that.’”
Turning serious, Gemmell struggles to find the words to explain Ledecky’s success.
“She has a real desire to get better,” he finally said. “In some ways, I think it’s as simple as that.”
Nothing too flashy, that’s for sure.
Which seems just right for Ledecky. It’s just not her style.
Well, except in the pool.