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Katie Ledecky Keeps Going The Distance(s)

By Amy Rosewater | Aug. 04, 2014, 12:02 p.m. (ET)

Katie Ledecky competes in the women's 200-meter freestyle final at the Arena Grand Prix at the Skyline Aquatic Center on April 25, 2014 in Mesa, Arizona.

SILVER SPRING, Md. -- Katie Ledecky set two swimming world records in a span of four days at a meet in Texas earlier this summer, but she didn’t do much in the way of celebrating those feats.

“I had been away from home for about three weeks since I was in Colorado training and then had the meet in Texas, and so my mom made me a small cake when I got home,” the 17-year-old swimmer said after a recent morning practice. “But it was more because she hadn’t seen me in three weeks than for the world records.”

When Ledecky set two world records last summer at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, she treated herself to not one, but two, scoops of gelato.

Ledecky laughed when asked about her low-key forms of celebrating milestone achievements. She’s truly in this sport to win it, not to revel in it.

Perhaps this week in Irvine, California, this teen might have her cake and eat it, too. There, she will be one of several decorated swimmers, joining fellow U.S. Olympic gold medalists Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps, who will be competing in the 2014 Phillips 66 National Championships, a meet which will not only crown national champions but also will serve as a selection meet for the upcoming Pan Pacific Championships in Australia and the 2015 FINA World Championships in Russia.

All of which, of course, are major stepping stones for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, which will open exactly two years from Tuesday.

Ledecky is well aware of what’s ahead of her, for sure, but she tends to think more in the moment. She’s become one of the most dominant distance swimmers in the world, as the current world-record holder in both the 800 and the 1,500 freestyle events, but she’s also a force to be recognized in shorter distances. She enters nationals with the fourth-fastest time in the world this year in the 200 when she clocked a 1:55.79 in College Park, Maryland, in July.

But what also is true for Ledecky is that she probably wouldn’t complain if her coach asked her to swim the 50 or the 1,500.

Or everything in between.

Katie Ledecky poses with a fan for a photo after winning the women's 200-meter freestyle final at the Arena Grand Prix at the Skyline Aquatic Center on April 25, 2014 in Mesa, Arizona.

Ledecky is entered in every freestyle event at nationals and also could swim the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys for a total of eight events. As is typical in swimming, she and her coaches are keeping her list of events she actually will swim close to the vest. But one thing you can plan on is seeing a lot of Ledecky in the pool this week.

“I just like to swim,” she said on this particular morning, her hair still dripping wet from practice. “And I just swim whatever my coaches tell me is the event for the meet.”

The fact that Ledecky swims the 1,500 is telling in and of itself. The 1,500 is not part of the Olympic program for women (although it is for the men) and that is something that riles up the likes of Olympic champions Rowdy Gaines and John Naber, who both believe it is time for equal opportunity for women to swim the mile in the Games.

But the event is part of the world championships and other meets, and for that reason, Ledecky continues to enter it. Bruce Gemmell, her coach at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, said they are “not on a crusade” to change the Olympic program. They are, however, going to continue to chip away at the fastest time in the event.

“I really just like the training for it,” Ledecky said. “I get a good feeling after I practice it. I don’t think about much when I’m swimming it. I pretty much shut my brain off and settle into a pace. I listen to the rhythm of the waves and the water.”

Neither she nor Gemmell thought the world record for the 1,500 was in play when they entered her in the Texas meet in June.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “I thought I could (clock) the high 15:30s, low 15:40s.”

She had reached about the 500-meter mark when a coaching colleague of Gemmell’s walked over to him and asked what her world record was.

“The coach came back at about the 1,000 and said, ‘No, really, what is it?’” Gemmell said. “We were not really targeting it.”

Ledecky said, “I could tell it was a fast one,” and indeed it was. She touched the wall at 15:34.23, beating her previous world record of 15:36.53. Just days later, she bettered her world record in the 800 as well.

Considering all of her achievements, Ledecky could have easily turned pro and lined up all sorts of red-carpet events. An Olympic champion (she won the 800 at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the age of 15), Ledecky and her family opted against that route. She announced plans in April to swim at Stanford, and like her mother, Mary Gen, who swam at the University of New Mexico, Katie is excited about entering collegiate competition. Katie’s older brother, Michael, is a club swimmer at Harvard.

When it comes to making a splash, Ledecky usually reserves that for her in-the-pool performances. Ledecky could have been swimming in the televised meets, such as the Santa Clara Grand Prix, where many Olympians entered this summer, but instead opted for low-key club meets in Texas and another one in Potomac, Maryland, not far from her home in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

She rarely gets recognized in public and when she does, she often resists it. A rising senior at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic girls school in Bethesda, Maryland, Ledecky often is noticed when she walks through the lower school. True, at 5-foot-11, she towers over most kindergartners traipsing through the hallways there, but she’s recognized more for the heights she has achieved as a swimmer.

“The first couple of months after the Olympics I would have to walk by the younger girls in the lower school and I would hear the girls call me ‘Katie Ledecky,’ it was never just ‘Katie,’” she said. “It was real cute and fun interacting with the little kids.”

But she also noted that she sped up a bit when she was in the lower school so she wouldn’t get stopped. Being a famous student sometimes was a little much, especially when Ledecky just wanted to be a regular kid.

Ledecky is almost abnormal in that she loves the swimming and the training more so than the celebrating and perks that come from all the hard work. 

 “I wish the others were the outliers and this was normal,” Gemmell said.

“Every step of the way on this journey she’s just really embraced the whole aspect of swimming,” Mary Gen Ledecky said. “She’s really not materialistic at all. I think she gets most excited about T-shirts.

“I still remember when she got a qualifying time for a zone meet and she was so excited about putting down her size for the meet T-shirt,” Mary Gen added. “It really was the same for her when she made the Olympic Team and got all kinds of gear for that. And she gets excited about going to meets and being with her friends. That’s what it’s about for her.”

Katie has been so focused on her swimming and school that she has not made much time to obtain her driver’s license. Although she’s taken a few driver’s ed classes, she still has a ways to go, and in the meantime, her parents drop her off and pick her up from practice in an old Volvo.

She will have plenty of family support when she competes at nationals this week as her parents and brother will all be in California, as will aunts, uncles and cousins who hail from various parts of the West Coast. Her two grandmothers, both in their 80s, will be tuning in to the live stream of the event on computers.

Shortly after nationals, she will begin her senior year of high school. With her college decision already made up, Ledecky is looking forward to focusing on some fun parts of being a senior. She will be a co-leader for her school’s campus ministry and will plan liturgies. In addition, she will serve dinners at a nearby homeless shelter and she helps repair bikes that are shipped to developing countries.

“It’s definitely eye opening,” Ledecky said of her volunteer work. “It opens your eyes to things that are happening right in your own community. And I don’t feel like I’m an Olympian there. I just do it. One time a man who has been going (to the homeless shelter) recognized me and that surprised me.”

Little of what she does in the pool surprises folks these days.

It’s just her nonchalant style out of it that continues to amaze.

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

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Katie Ledecky