LONDON — Two months ago, Katie Ledecky finished her freshman year in high school.
Tonight, in her first final in international competition, the 15-year-old freestyler recorded the second fastest 800-meter freestyle time in history and beat the American record held by Janet Evans since 1989.
Better still, Ledecky swam away with an Olympic gold medal.
And she had Missy Franklin, Elizabeth Beisel, and Michael Phelps to thank. In the two races before the 800m final, Franklin set a world record and Beisel won a bronze medal in the 200m backstroke, while Phelps won gold in the 100m butterfly.
“Missy and Michael’s races really got me pumped up,” said a wide-eyed Ledecky, still dripping from the pool. “I just wanted to see how well I could do to represent the U.S.”
It’s been a whirlwind year for the teen from Bethesda, Maryland. Last August, she competed in Junior Nationals — not senior nationals, like most 2012 Olympic hopefuls — and won the 400, 800, and mile. When she sat down with coach Yuri Suguiyama in the fall, they talked about the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.
“Katie, what would be the ultimate goal there?” he asked.
She gave the typical teen response: “Um, what? I don’t know.”
He asked her again, and she replied hesitantly, “Make the Olympics?”
Yes, replied Suguiyama, and he promised not to tell anyone.
Balancing training and ninth grade at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Ledecky worked hard. In February, she won the 800 at the Missouri Grand Prix in 8:30.14. But the field was not deep.
Then at U.S. Olympic Trials in June, she dropped over 10 seconds off her time and won the 800, beating former world record holder Kate Ziegler — one of her idols.
At training camp before the Games, she gained confidence and speed, and it did not go unnoticed by her teammates.
“We kind of watched her come out of her shell during camp,” said Phelps. “She was always just having fun. You could tell she felt very comfortable.”
Arriving in London, Ledecky was far off the radar. She was, after all, the youngest member of the entire 529-member U.S. Olympic team.
Instead, all eyes were on reigning 800 world champion, defending Olympic gold medalist, and British darling, Rebecca Adlington, as well as Dane Lotte Friis, the 2011 world runner-up. The British swimmer set the 800 world record of 8:14.10 at the 2008 Olympics.
But Ledecky was only thinking about the world records and gold medals earned by her teammates.
In the ready room, Phelps gave her a high-five and told her to have fun out there, a gesture that made Ledecky think back to the first time she met him at 2003 U.S. nationals. She was six at the time and had not started swimming yet. But the future 21-time Olympic medalist stopped to sign his autograph, then he waved as Ledecky and her family drove off. The memory calmed her down as she waited for the 800.
Then, right before she walked onto the pool deck, she watched both Franklin and Phelps take gold medals, and Beisel earn bronze.
“I was ready to scream when I saw Missy and then Michael’s race,” said Ledecky, who watched their races from the ready room. “But I kept it to myself and just used it as extra energy.”
Ledecky seemed turbo-charged from the start, diving into the pool and going “hard from the get-go,” said Adlington.
“I tried to go out a little more controlled,” Ledecky said. “But I just got so excited when I was racing, and I felt really good.”
As the media interviewed Phelps after his final individual Olympic race, Ledecky was on a TV monitor on the other side of the room. Only 150 meters into the race, she was over a body length ahead of her nearest competitor — and well ahead of world record pace. Reporters had their microphones turned toward Phelps and their eyes on the TV.
Ledecky stayed above world record pace until the final 50.
“I figured I was going pretty fast,” she said. “At one point I thought, well, if I’m going to be close to this world record, I don’t even care. I want to get my hand on the wall first.”
She touched the wall in 8:14.63 — only 53/100ths over the world record.
“I didn’t really expect gold,” she added. “But I’ll take it.”
After climbing out of the pool, Ledecky thanked Franklin and Beisel for the inspiration they provided by swimming so well themselves.
“I’m really happy that I could do something to get her spark going,” said Beisel.
Ledecky’s gold was a good sign for American distance swimming. U.S. women once dominated the event at the Olympics, most notably Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett, who won back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 1988-1992 and 1996-2000, respectively. But no American woman has won gold in the event since Bennett a dozen years ago.
Phelps was all smiles talking about Ledecky’s swim tonight and her bright future.
“She went out there and laid it all on the line,” he said. “It looked like she went out and had some fun, won a gold medal, and just missed a world record. I’d say that’s a pretty good Olympics for a 15-year-old.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.