Katie Ledecky poses on the red carpet at the 2018 Golden Goggle Awards on Nov. 19, 2018 in New York City.
NEW YORK – Not even a goofy, swimmer-inspired version of “America’s Got Talent” was a match for the greatness that is Katie Ledecky at USA Swimming’s annual Golden Goggle Awards in midtown Manhattan Monday night.
The Olympic champion and world record holder took to the stage along with fellow Olympic medalist Elizabeth Beisel during what was deemed “Swimming’s Got Talent,” and the two performed (Ledecky on piano and vocals, Beisel on violin) a stirring version of The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
“I think I was a little pitchy,” Ledecky said in a coy self-critique, a roar of laughter rippling through the ballroom. But up against a guitar solo (Zach Harting) and a spell of magic tricks (Chuck Katis), a panel of judges featuring swimming greats deemed Ledecky and Beisel the winners.
“We’re taking this to Vegas!” they joked, as Olympic medalist Lilly King rushed to the stage to snap their photo as a faux paparazzo. But for Ledecky, it was just the beginning of another sparkling evening of accolades.
Swimming’s got talent, indeed.
For the sixth straight year, the 21-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland, took home the Female Athlete of the Year honor, in a season in which she announced she was turning pro in March, won five medals at the Pan Pacific Championships in Tokyo in August, captured four national titles and set another world record (breaking her own) in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
“I went through a lot of different changes,” Ledecky told TeamUSA.org earlier in the evening. “I’m still at Stanford training with the team, still taking classes full time, but just really busy. It’s been a great year; a lot has happened.”
A lot happened on Monday night, too, for Olympic gold medalist Ryan Murphy, who was nominated for three Golden Goggles and walked off stage with three awards in hand, winning for Male Athlete of the Year, Male Race of the Year (100-meter backstroke at Pan Pacs) and Relay Performance of the Year (4x100 medley at Pan Pacs).
“I think of 2018 as a bounce-back year for me,” Murphy told TeamUSA.org on the red carpet, where he donned a blue velvet tuxedo. (Yes, you read that right.)
“In 2017, I didn’t do what I wanted. But coming back this year, I wanted to get back on track and do things the right way. I think I did that, and I think it gives me good momentum going in 2019 (worlds) and 2020 (the Olympics).”
At Pan Pacs, the biggest international meet of the year, Murphy won three gold medals (and won the Male Athlete of the Championships award) after sweeping the 50, 100 and 200 backstroke at nationals earlier in the summer. Murphy had what was a disappointing performance for him at worlds in 2017, failing to top the podium in the 100 or 200 backstroke, both of which he won Olympic gold in one year prior.
The 15th annual staging of the Golden Goggles took place at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel and featured a livestream of the red carpet and awards program itself on usaswimming.org. A silent and live auction helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for the USA Swimming Foundation.
While Ledecky and Murphy headlined the night, it was also a big one for 19-year-old Michael Andrew, who made a splash on the national and international scene this year with a breakthrough season, becoming the first male to win four national titles since 2008 and then winning gold in the 50 free at Pan Pacs.
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“I had to learn how to deal with a lot coming into 2018 – basically how to be a professional athlete,” Andrew told TeamUSA.org before winning the Breakout Performer of the Year award.
“Going into nationals I realized what a massive opportunity it was and something that I didn’t want to spoil. Things can always go wrong, and I went into nationals knowing that I wouldn’t be defined by it and that let me swim free. Once the meet started, the momentum just carried itself. After the 50 fly the first night, I was more confident. All of that gave me the opportunity to swim so well.”
Andrew has taken his own path: He trains with his dad using a short race method (training at the pace of a race), and turned pro at 14, making him the youngest American to ever do so.
While the night was about new faces like Andrew’s it was also about comeback stories, including that of 2012 Olympian Micah (Lawrence) Sumrall, who, after missing the 2016 Olympic team, took time away from the sport before launching a return in 2018. She’d win the 200 breaststroke at nationals before also taking the title in the same race at Pan Pacs.
Sumrall broke into tears on stage as she accepted the Perseverance Award before an audience of her peers, coaches and major donors, saying she owed it to her husband, Austin.
Other winners on Monday included: Coach of the Year, Greg Meehan (Ledecky/Stanford); Female Race of the Year, Kathleen Baker (nationals 100 backstroke); and Andrew Wilson, Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian joining Murphy in the Relay Performance of the Year category.
While Adrian did not attend the night, familiar names including King, Simone Manuel, Chase Kalisz and Ashley Twichell were there, all in a reflective and celebratory mood as the swimming community celebrated success for the U.S. in 2018 and slowly turned its eye towards 2020 and the Tokyo Olympic Games, which are now just over 18 months away.
“We are family,” Kalisz told TeamUSA.org in explaining how the U.S. swim team has continued to be such a force internationally. “People like Ryan (Murphy), Kevin (Cordes) and Cullen (Jones, who co-hosted the USA Swimming livestream show) who I grew up looking up to, we are family, we do everything together. When we’re traveling, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we have meals together. It’s refreshing.”
Kalisz, an Olympic silver medalist in 2016, won both the 200 and 400 IM at Pan Pacs. He said he faced a series of challenges going into the summer, and that he took it “one race at a time” at nationals and Pan Pacs. He finished in Tokyo with that 200 IM win – and recorded the best time of his career while doing so.
“I was really happy with that, I didn’t expect it,” Kalisz recalled. “I was coming off of the worst race of probably my last five years in the 200 butterfly and I had a two-day turnaround. I had the right mindset. Things worked out.”
King said she was satisfied with her 2018, but that she never expected to repeat the five world records she set in the summer of 2017. “I think it was a good recovery summer,” she explained. “It helps me turn the corner looking towards Tokyo 2020.”
And like Ledecky, Manuel made the move to go professional in 2018, as well, but says life is no less complicated. In fact, it might be more so. But that’s the way she likes it.
“This year I re-set my goals,” Manuel told TeamUSA.org. “I’m just getting adjusted to the life of being a professional swimmer. I feel busier. I have more work to do (out of the pool), too. I’m managing. Swimming is always going to be all of our No. 1 priority.”
And while swimming is the No. 1 priority for all the athletes at Golden Goggles, Ledecky continuing to work on her vocals might be a good idea, too. Is it possible to change the name of the song to… “Led It Be”?
Just a suggestion.