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Katie Ledecky: Olympic SportsWoman Of The Year

By Amy Rosewater | Oct. 24, 2013, 12:45 p.m. (ET)

Katie Ledecky celebrates after winning the women's 1,500-meter freestyle at the 2013 USA Swimming Phillips 66 National Championships and World Championship Trials on June 29, 2013 in Indianapolis.

Katie Ledecky celebrates on the podium after winning the
1,500-meter freestyle in world record time at the 15th FINA World
Championships on July 30, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.

Katie Ledecky has achieved quite a bit at just 16, but there is one thing missing from her impressive list of accomplishments: a driver’s license.

“No,” she said with a laugh. “No license yet. I got my permit in August, but I haven’t even been on the roads yet. I’ve only driven on an empty parking lot.”

Ledecky isn’t quite sure when she officially will be able to be behind the wheel, but if she is half as good at driving as she is swimming, she should be OK to be on the roads soon.

Not only does Ledecky have an Olympic gold medal to her credit (she captured the title in the 800-meter freestyle in London in 2012), but also she garnered four world championship gold medals and set two world records in 2013.

For her achievements during this past year, she has been named the United States Olympic Committee’s Olympic SportsWoman of the Year, joining a prestigious list of previous winners that includes Allyson Felix, Lindsey Vonn and Michelle Kwan. Ledecky also becomes the latest in a line of talented swimmers who have won the award, joining Natalie Coughlin, Jenny Thompson and Janet Evans, among others. 

Ledecky will be honored Oct. 29 in New York. Other athlete winners this year are: alpine skier Ted Ligety (Olympic SportsMan of the Year), track athlete Raymond Martin (Paralympic SportsMan of the Year), cyclist Monica Bascio (Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year), doubles tennis champions Bob and Mike Bryan (Olympic Team of the Year) and the U.S. men’s 4x100-meter track & field team of Richard Browne, Blake Leeper, Jerome Singleton and Jarryd Wallace (Paralympic Team of the Year).

“I was extremely excited and extremely honored to hear that I won this award,” Ledecky said. “Definitely seeing some of the past winners is exciting. It hasn’t really sunk in that I’m on that list, too. It still seems just like yesterday that I was learning how to swim. I am still taking this all one step at a time.”

Around this time a year ago, Ledecky said she and her coach, Bruce Gemmell, sat down and hatched out a plan for her swimming goals. She was hoping for three medals at the world championships (any color, she said), one world record and to be part of a U.S. relay team. What she finished with were four world medals (all gold in color), two world records (in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle) and not only was she part of a U.S. relay at worlds, but she also won a gold medal as part of one (4x200-meter freestyle).

“It felt so good to accomplish all of those goals and more,” Ledecky said of her performances this summer at the 15th FINA World Championships, which were held in Barcelona.

Even more impressive for Ledecky is that the world championships were only her second international meet. Her first? The London 2012 Olympic Games.

In London, where she was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic Team, Ledecky’s sole focus was the 800, and she competed in the preliminary and the final, totaling 1,600 meters of racing. In Barcelona, however, she ended up racing (including prelims) close to 6,000 meters.

Ledecky showed she was more than up to the task, however.

On the opening day of the swimming competition at the world championships, Ledecky captured her first world title in the 400. Two days later, she set a world record in the 1,500 with a time of 15:36.53, beating Kate Ziegler’s previous world record set back in 2007 (15:42.54) by more than six seconds — an eternity by swimming standards.

“It was a great race and I was right next to (Lotte Friis) of Denmark,” Ledecky said. “We were pretty far in front, and so I had a feeling we were on pace for a world-record mark, but really I just wanted to get my hand on the wall first. When I saw the time and saw it was a world record by about six seconds, I was pretty stunned.”

She followed up her win in the metric mile by earning her first world relay gold medal. Ledecky joined Shannon Vreeland, Karlee Bispo and Missy Franklin on the 4x200-meter team to win the gold medal.

Ledecky closed the world championships with the 800, setting a second world record with a time of 8:13.86. The previous world record had been set by Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington, who was clocked at 8:14.10 en route to winning the gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

When asked what she was most proud of during those world championships, however, Ledecky said that she would have to say it was her victory in the 400, which of the three individual events was the only one in which she did not swim at world-record pace. That honor still belongs to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini, who set the world record of 3:59.15 in July 2009. Ledecky’s time in Spain was 3:59.82.

But there is a reason why Ledecky is so proud of that 400 swim: She was able to break the 4-minute barrier in the 400 without using a polyurethane swimsuit, the controversial swimwear which has since been banned.

“The 400 was probably my best race of the meet,” Ledecky said. “It was the event my coach geared my training to.”

While in Barcelona, Ledecky said she bonded with her U.S. teammate and roommate, Simone Manuel, a 17-year-old sprinter who won a gold medal at the world championships as part of the 4x100-meter freestyle team.

“We had so much together,” Ledecky said. “We would have music dance parties before finals. We were really rooting for each other.”

The summer was good for Ledecky, but there has been no slowing down. She is a full-time student with a seven-class course load (including advanced placement classes in U.S. history and statistics) and practice before and after the bells ring. Somehow, she still managed to make time to appear in a softball game with wounded warriors and participate in a social action group at school. Right now, she’s working on a program called Bikes for the World that collects bicycles for kids as far away as Africa, and she’s part of her school’s campus ministry program in which she serves meals to the homeless.

And, of course, she will make time in February to cheer for the next crop of U.S. Olympians who will compete in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. She might rub elbows with some of them when she is in New York to accept her USOC Olympic SportsWoman of the Year award since there will be a 100 Days Countdown to Sochi celebration in Times Square as well.

“It will be really exciting to watch the Olympics this winter,” Ledecky said. “I’m excited to watch all of the sports, but I’m especially excited for hockey.”

Normally a fan of her hometown Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin, Ledecky said she will drop her allegiance to the Russian player for the Winter Games.

“I’m going to be cheering for the U-S-A,” she said.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she has covered two Olympic Games and two Olympic Winter Games. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.

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Katie Ledecky