When Katie Ledecky was a little girl and just starting to be interested in competitive swimming, she went to a major meet near her hometown of Bethesda, Maryland, and watched some elite swimmers.
Just being in their presence, much less interacting with them, was a springboard for what is already one of the great swimming careers in Olympic history.
So when Ledecky, now 21 and a five-time Olympic champion, spent time in the pool Tuesday with more than 100 students in Setagaya, Japan, as part of the “Go For Gold” campaign in preparation for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, she knew it was a moment the kids wouldn’t forget.
“Personally, I was inspired by some Olympic swimmers when I was 6 or 7 years old, getting into the sport, so I know the impact it can have on young swimmers to meet Olympic-level swimmers,” Ledecky told TeamUSA.org. “I saw that today.”
Katie Ledecky swims with a student at the "Go For Gold" clinic, sponosored by the U.S. Embassy, on Aug. 13, 2018 in Setagaya, Japan.
Fresh off three golds and a bronze in individual events and a relay silver medal at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Tokyo, Ledecky provided advice as the students swam laps, demonstrated skills and answered questions from those in attendance, which included the mayor and other local officials.
“Obviously there was a language barrier and I didn’t know how much English they really knew, so I tried to give some hand signals, some thumbs-ups and say, ‘Very good’ or, ‘Great swimming’ or, ‘Great kick,’ and their faces would light up when I said anything or even just smiled at them, so I think a lot of them were encouraged and had a lot of fun today,” said Ledecky, who only knows a few words of Japanese but did have the help of a translator.
Ledecky has made working in the community a priority.
“Giving back has always been something emphasized to me in my upbringing, my education and my faith,” she said. “It’s a crucial part of my life, just being able to give back to those in need and those in my community.”
Katie Ledecky speaks to students at the "Gold For Gold" clinic, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, on Aug. 13, 2018 in Setagaya, Japan.
Among the activities she participates in are serving meals to the homeless once a month, helping to collect bicycles for developing countries and visiting Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“I can see the impact it has on the kids there,” Ledecky said of her hospital visits. “I never really knew the power of a gold medal until I went to Children’s hospital, and kids that don’t even want to get out of bed, once they see the gold medal, their faces light up. If it can brighten their day just a little bit, I think that can really help with their recovery and their well-being and their day, and I know their families appreciate it.”
Setagaya, the site of Tuesday’s U.S. Embassy-sponsored clinic, will be the host city for Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics, so this trip provided Ledecky and the American swimmers a chance to explore the Olympic swimming facilities as well as where they will call home for two weeks. The swimmers will be spending more time in Asia as next year’s world championships are in Gwangju, South Korea.
“I think, as a whole, we learned a lot as a team,” she said. “It was great to be able to compete in Tokyo two years before 2020 to get a feel for the travel, the logistics, the fans, the weather, everything. I think we will feel more comfortable in two years when we come back.”
After a few more days in Tokyo, Ledecky and her family will return to Maryland, where she will spend a few weeks before she goes back to Stanford to attend school and resume training. However, after competing with the Cardinal the past two seasons — and leading Stanford to two NCAA titles — Ledecky will now be training at the school as a pro. That means her next competition won’t be until at least October, she said.
Katie Ledecky receives flowers from students at the "Go For Gold" clinic, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, on Aug. 13, 2018 in Setagaya, Japan.
It’s an exciting time of change in Ledecky’s life, and she knows she might not be in this position at all without some early inspiration.
“I definitely was exposed to the very best swimmers at a very young age, and I think that made me very excited to get started in year-round swimming and really try to work my way up,” Ledecky said. “I never thought I would make it to the Olympics. If some of these young kids can have that dream or be inspired in some small way, just to improve their strokes or work a little bit harder, then today was a success.”