Above, she could see people in the bleachers rise to their feet, trying to catch a glimpse. Girls selling food to raise money for their prom stopped and rushed into a workout room to peer through windows overlooking the pool. Swimmers wrapped in towels crowded the edge of the deck, many with camera phones pointed at Ledecky. Some of her high school opponents on the blocks just stared.
She was a spectacle, and she set a meet record in the race — the 200-yard individual medley. Afterward, she waited an hour in a corner of the natatorium with her Stone Ridge teammates, laughing and cheering. Then she snuck back to the blocks for the 500 freestyle, where she lapped everyone. And when she was done, she turned around and stood in the water. She lifted her goggles onto her forehead, and rung out her ears. Then she extended her elbows onto the concrete edge of the pool, as if she were relaxing on a couch, and waited for the rest of the field to finish.
“Every race that I have, whether it’s a high school meet or a race at the Olympics,” Ledecky said, “I never feel the pressure.”
Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle race in London on Aug, 3 — an event that dwarfs the 500 she regularly swims for her Bethesda school. She didn’t just win the race, she won it by four seconds, shattering the 23-year-old U.S. record with a time of 8 minutes 14.63 seconds. That August day, Ledecky became an international star and a rarity in American sports — a true prodigy.
But this winter, the prodigy is precisely where she knows she belongs — back in the pool alongside her high school teammates.
“If I could compare the two, I would say high school swimming is a lot more team oriented,” Ledecky said. “These are some of my best friends, and I know they’ll be my best friends in 20, 30, 40 years.”
Looking ahead to those years, instead of flashing back on the 15th year of her life, has brought calm to Ledecky. Last weekend, when Stone Ridge won the ISL championship for the first time in 10 years, Ledecky looked genuinely happy. After officials announced her team had won, Ledecky dove into the pool with her Gator teammates and swam around for awhile, splashing and hanging on them, like she was at a local water hole on a hot summer day. She took pictures with the team, hugged well-wishers, and went out to dinner with everyone after. And she hopes to do it all again Saturday night at the Washington Metropolitan Prep School Swim & Dive League Championships at the Takoma Aquatic Center, where the circus could be two-fold.
“I just want to represent my school as well as I can,” Ledecky said. “It’s not something where I feel like, ‘Oh I’m an Olympic gold medalist, I better win this race or else it’s going to look really silly.’ I don’t feel that at all. There are great swimmers in the area, and if I don’t win, it’s fine.”