ATLANTA -- As three young girls and a boy crowded into a selfie with Katie Ledecky on the pool deck at the Atlanta Classic Swim Meet, the accommodating swimmer quickly sized up the situation.
“Here,” she said, reaching for the camera, “I have a long arm, I’ll take it.”
Not that long ago, Ledecky, 19, was in their shoes. She has a photo taken with Michael Phelps at a swimming clinic when she was 9 or 10.
And, Ledecky said, “I think I have one or two of his autographs.”
She vaguely remembers her first meeting with the most decorated Olympian of all time when she was 6 years old and on her first swim team.
Ledecky and her mom spotted Phelps in the parking lot at nationals. “He was listening to his headphones and he stopped, took them out and said ‘hi’ to us,” she said. “And he gave us an autograph, so it was really nice of him. It made an impact and whenever I’m at meets like this, I’m always willing to sign a T-shirt or whatever it is.”
Ledecky could get writer’s cramp from signing so many autographs if she dominates the pool at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games the way she has the last two years.
She is the overwhelming favorite for Olympic gold in both the 800-meter freestyle – the event she won in London four years ago at age 15 – and the 400 free. She holds the world record in both events, as well as the 1,500, which is not part of the Olympic Games.
Ledecky also is the reigning world champion in the 200 free and has the two fastest times in the world this year in that event. She held the top time by an American in the 100 until Sunday, when her 53.75 seconds from January dropped to second behind Dana Vollmer’s 53.59 in another meet.
Factor in some relays and five medals is not out of the question.
But who’s counting? Certainly not Ledecky.
“I don’t like to think big picture like that,” she said. “I never set goals of, ‘Oh, I want to win this many number of medals.’ I have goals for each event and when I get up on the blocks for each event, I’m going to try to reach my goal in that event.”
The Atlanta Classic could be Ledecky’s last meet before the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming on June 26-July 3 in Omaha, Nebraska, although her coach, Bruce Gemmell of the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, said she may swim a meet in either Indianapolis or Austin in early June.
“I feel great heading into the (Olympic) Trials,” Ledecky said Sunday after the last of her five events, “and I got a lot of good information and swam well.
“We’re in a good spot right now, so I’m happy.”
On the first day of the meet, Ledecky won the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 1:54.82, after first surprising herself by going 1:54.85 in the morning preliminary.
“I’ve now gone my three fastest 200 frees this year so that gives me some good momentum in that event going into trials,” said Ledecky, who swam the world-leading 1:54.43 in January in Austin.
She also was third in Atlanta in the 400-meter individual medley, closing with a 30.25-second final 100 freestyle to pull up from sixth place.
On Day 2, Ledecky had spectators at the 1996 Olympic pool on their feet cheering as she approached her own world record of 3:58.37 in the 400-meter freestyle. She fell short, clocking 4:00.31, but it was still almost 9½ seconds faster than second place.
On Sunday, as the meet concluded, Ledecky skipped her signature event, the 800-meter freestyle, which she would have won easily. Instead, she placed fifth in the 200 IM and then third in the 100 freestyle (54.55) behind her future Stanford teammates Simone Manuel (54.11) and Lia Neal (54.31), but ahead of Olympic medalists Amanda Weir, Natalie Coughlin and Shannon Vreeland.
If Ledecky maintains that kind of speed, she could qualify for the 4x100-meter for Team USA.
“I’ve kind of surprised myself how much my speed has come along this year and you never know,” she said, “so we’ll just see how far I can take it.”
Gemmell said focusing on the shorter events Sunday was a way of “keeping it fresh.” And, he said, “It’s probably kind of hard to believe but she’s still sort of a newbie with the 100 free. I kind of wish we had another six months to do some work on the 100 free, but we don’t.”
Ledecky postponed her freshman year of college at Stanford to continue living in Bethesda, Maryland, and train for Rio with Gemmell.
Without school on her schedule, she said, “I’ve been able to get some more naps. I’ve been doing my best to recover and rest between practices and that’s been nice.”
She went to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train at altitude for four weeks in March and April, where she did some reading and watched some movies.
Ledecky will return to the OTC this month for 10 more days of training, then go to her brother Michael’s graduation from Harvard.
She made the most of her first time swimming in the 1996 Olympic pool, joking with Manuel and her other friends and meeting new people.
“I was supposed to come to a meet here in 2011, long course nationals in December, but I got walking pneumonia,” Ledecky said. “I remember sitting on my sofa sick and watching the meet and wishing I was down here racing. That was going to be my first national level meet before Olympic Trials in 2012 so I kind of had to wait to get that experience, but I love this pool, I think it’s a fast pool.”
She was born about eight months after the Atlanta Games, where Amy Van Dyken won four gold medals, a feat unmatched by a Team USA female swimmer until Missy Franklin won four golds and a bronze in London.
In 2012, Ledecky was just arriving on the world scene, culminating in her Olympic gold in London at age 15.
The difference between then and now, she said, is “the experience. I’ve been to two world championships and the Olympics. In 2012, I was just starting to go to these national level meets, so I feel a lot more comfortable on deck and just racing all these people. I think I’ll have a good trials experience just feeling more comfortable and ready to race.”
Ledecky won four gold medals at the 2013 world championships, then five in 2015, sweeping every freestyle event from 200 to 1,500.
She said she just focuses on her own race, which is a good thing since in the longer races she usually gets so far ahead she is swimming by herself.
Ledecky doesn’t pause to dwell on her achievements or her place in the history of the sport, even as she sees her world record times continue to drop.
“It’s hard to reflect on it or spend time doing that,” she said, “and I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to get caught up in things, so I just focus on the present and what my goals are. But yeah, I’ve had a great couple of years and I’ve really enjoyed being at this level for the last couple of years and meeting all the people and hopefully making an impact on little kids.”
“I think it’s just I’m enjoying what I’m doing,” Ledecky added. “I love the sport and I love pushing myself and seeing how fast I can go and that’s what I’ve always loved about the sport.”
Ledecky said she doesn’t have a favorite race. “I’ve always just liked freestyle,” she said. “The 400 IM has 100 freestyle in there, so I’ll swim that.
“Yeah, give me an event with freestyle, I’ll swim it.”
That could lead to one of the busiest schedules in Rio. “When you start throwing relays around, that gets a little dicier from the schedule standpoint,” Gemmell said. “You almost start approaching the schedule that Michael (Phelps) tackled in Beijing – and that is just heroic, for lack of a better word, when you start talking about schedules like that.”
However, he said Ledecky is impervious to outside pressure.
“I think probably the biggest challenge may be managing her own expectations, which are not everybody else’s expectations,” he said. “She and I have kept them to herself and that’s fine. That’s more important to her than external expectations.”
Ledecky said she is driven by the motivation simply to get better. “I’m always trying to improve and be better each week in training, each month,” she said. “And hopefully that will lead to something good this summer.”
Since Gemmell began working with her three years ago, he said her turns have gone from a weakness to “if they’re not a strength now, they’re certainly way better than they were.”
Gemmell said she also has improved what he called her tendency to “mismanage her legs over the course of a race.”
In addition, Ledecky has gotten stronger, and she and Gemmell have figured out how to integrate her added strength.
But while Ledecky’s arms are long enough to take good selfies, Gemmell said there is nothing remarkable about her physically, in the way swimming fans marveled about Australian Ian Thorpe’s gigantic feet or German Michael Gross’ wingspan.
“She’s got tiny hands!” he said. “Simone and Katie put their hands up to each other and Simone dwarfed Katie’s hand. And Katie’s got tiny feet, too.
“She’s relatively short (at 5-foot-11) and she doesn’t have an excessive wingspan.”
Nevertheless, Ledecky’s arms are long enough to wrap around what could become one of the greatest Olympic performances this summer.