Ledecky spends about 20 hours a week in the pool, splitting time between commitments to the Nation’s Capital Swim Club and her high school team — and sometimes she misses club practices to make high school dual meets. It is a protective cocoon for Ledecky, and in turn she guards her time with the Stone Ridge team, where as with Team USA in London, she is still a junior member.
One teenage girl who can relate is fellow summer sensation Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old swimmer from Colorado who after winning four gold medals in London, opted to come back to swim at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora this winter. But she is still two years older than Ledecky.
“From Katie’s standpoint, she’s seven years under the average age of our team,” said USA Swimming National Team Director Frank Busch. “Why would we ever deny someone the opportunity to compete at a level in which they’re qualified for? So why would we ever want to take the high school experience away from Katie or Missy?”
Last week at Madeira, as her team made a circle around the senior captains for a pre-swim rally, Ledecky stood on the outer ring, taller than the rest, listening to the speeches. Then she blended in for a series of chants, including the ‘Gator Chomp,’ which pays homage to the school’s mascot.
In that circle was 14-year-old Kelleigh Haley, a freshman swimmer who just turned 15 this week, and who, after getting over an initial intimidation of Ledecky last year, decided to “shadow” her role model during their interactions on the club swimming circuit. She said she decided to come to Stone Ridge last year with prodding by Ledecky. This happened before London, and Ledecky arrived home and became Haley’s teammate.
“It was really cool,” Haley said of Ledecky continuing to swim at the high school. “A new feeling like, ‘Wow, I’m so close to the top. This is, like, real.’ ”
Another one of those girls was senior captain and Carnegie Mellon recruit Natalie Kronfli. She has worked with Ledecky to look at this season at the school as opportunity, not pressure.
“I don’t know if it’s really nervous,” Kronfli said of the swimmers who have to face Ledecky in practice and at meets. “I don’t want this to sound rude, we kind of know the outcome. People get very excited. All the kids come up to her and ask her for autographs. I mean, my sister did so.”
The pageantry around high school swimming, in stark contrast to the cutthroat nature of international competition, is what has ahold of Ledecky this winter. The kids make signs. Some paint their faces, and wear costumes during the meets. Ledecky will be in the middle of it all Saturday night at the WMPSSDL meet.
But she still has moments when traces of her past creep up, and for the good. A club coach noticed Ledecky get antsy during the national anthem at a meet in December, and told her he saw her swaying back and forth. As an Olympian, it’s one part of herself that she can bring back to life in high school pools.
“He could tell I was flashing back,” Ledecky said. “I definitely was.”