RIO DE JANEIRO – Do you know where you were and what you were doing on Aug. 3, 2012? Katie Ledecky does.
“This is the day four years ago that I won gold in London,” said Ledecky.
She was 15 years old and new on the international scene when she won the 800-meter freestyle at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Ledecky broke Janet Evans' 23-year-old American record with her time of 8 minutes, 14.63 seconds.
Since then, Ledecky has expanded her horizons exponentially, competing here in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles as well as at least one relay.
Her profile is so high that aside from Michael Phelps, Ledecky was the only Team USA swimmer with her own press conference Wednesday in the run-up to the start of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games on Friday.
“It's pretty easy to compare,” Ledecky said. “I wasn’t sitting here (before the assembled world media). A lot’s happened over the last four years. I had a lot of fun competing at international meets and gaining more experience. I feel more comfortable in this environment and know what to expect. That bodes well for my confidence and level of comfort on the pool deck.”
Because Ledecky has such a heavy schedule – competing on at least six days, possibly seven if she swims on the 400-meter freestyle relay – she won't walk in the Opening Ceremony Friday night like she did four years ago.
She'll also spend her time at the pool actually being in the pool.
In London, Ledecky said, “I went to all the swimming sessions and was cheering on my teammates. That was sort of crucial to feel I belonged at that stage.”
She also said that by being in the stands, “I felt like I made an impact, not like watching on TV. I’m actually in the venue screaming for my teammates.”
Now they'll scream for her. Ledecky has also found other ways to immerse herself in the Olympic experience.
“It’s really cool to meet people from all over the world and see them in the village and get to know them,” Ledecky said. “I'm still having as much fun this time around as I did last time.”
She said expanding her program came naturally as she set new goals and began working on her speed with Bruce Gemmell, who began working with her leading up to the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, Spain.
“As I started to drop time, I realized, 'Yeah, I can be a player in all those events on the international stage,'” Ledecky said “I set myself up for this year. It feels great that it’s finally here and hopefully everything will go really well.”
Ledecky said she hasn't noticed anyone looking at her any differently in the village.
“I think just in general, everybody on Team USA gets a little bit of a look,” she said. “We all stand tall, stand proud and we’re proud to represent our country.”
But she said some heads did turn when the swimming team showed up at the village and did its “USA” cheer.
Ledecky, who will start college at Stanford in the fall, said she is most looking forward to the 400 freestyle simply “because it's first,” with both preliminaries and finals on Sunday.
Asked if she envisions going under 8 minutes in the 800, Ledecky, whose world record of 8:06.68 was set in January, said “I'm getting pretty close. I take things one step at a time.”
While she acknowledged it was “a pretty big drop,” she added, “I still believe anything is possible.”
Teammate Missy Franklin, who will race with Ledecky in the 800-meter freestyle relay and against her in the 200 free, said she thought Ledecky “broke out on the international stage” four years ago.
“It's been such an honor to watch her,” Franklin sad. “To be her teammate while this is happening – she has one of those talents and one of those work ethics, that only comes around so often.
“I take great pride in being her teammate and competitor. Hopefully I can push her the way she pushes me.”
And yet, despite Ledecky's success, which includes every world record from 200 meters to 1,500 meters (which is not an Olympic event for women), the Bethesda, Maryland, native claims not to know what makes her so good.
“I just work hard and try my best every time I step up on those blocks,” Ledecky said. “I’m very goal-oriented. I always set high goals.”
Well, now she does, but not so much when she was very young.
“As a little girl,” Ledecky said, “I never dreamed about going to the Olympics.”
Now she wouldn't dream of being anywhere else.
At least one other top U.S. swimmer knew what he was doing four years ago. Ryan Lochte would have been celebrating his birthday. He turned 32 on Wednesday.
As a present to himself, the four-time Olympian dyed his hair a light bluish-gray color, although some teammates have suggested that he is merely hiding his gray hair.
“I really don’t know (what color it is supposed to be),” Lochte said. “Usually, I've always worn my grills at the Olympics and I left them at home.
I thought, “I've got to do something different, why not the hair? It's a little bold statement. That’s my personality, being different. I like it, It’s not bad.”