According to Pat Hogan, USA Swimming’s director of club development, participation in youth swimming grew 5.9 percent following the 2000 Sydney Games, 7.2 percent after the 2004 Atlanta Games and a record 11.2 percent following Phelps’s unprecedented eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. It’s currently tracking at more than 10 percent following the 2012 London Olympics, where Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time, earning his 22nd medal, and Ledecky, a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, won gold.
Eaton witnessed the inspirational power of Ledecky’s achievement first-hand during a “Swim-posium” that Potomac Valley held for young swimmers and their parents this fall. Ledecky was the star attraction, and she signed autographs for more than an hour as one child after another came up to marvel at her.
One little girl, he recalls, told Ledecky: “I took down all my horse posters and put up yours! How many hours a day do you train?”
Life in the lanes
On a recent Saturday morning at Georgetown Preparatory School, there Ledecky was, finishing her morning workout as dozens of 9- to 13-year-olds arrived at the pool for their 9 a.m. practice, flippers and goggles in hand. Because one of the coaches was out sick, Bruce Gemmell, who has coached Ledecky since her return from London, took on the 9- and 10-year-olds who were still learning basic strokes.
“I’m so happy you’re going to be our coach today!” one awestruck little boy gushed at Gemmell. “In my opinion, you’re one of the best!”
Several lanes over and on the opposite side of the pool, Mary Dowling, a Sidwell Friends School graduate who competed at Villanova, worked with more advanced 11- to 13-year-olds, who started with a series of stretches on the pool deck. Then she sorted them into four lanes, roughly seven swimmers per lane, and they popped on their goggles and took off like a school of dolphins through the water, first butterfly kicks using a board, then the backstroke, followed by breaststroke.
With less than three weeks before the Tom Dolan meet, Dowling devoted part of the lesson to finishing races, demonstrating proper form on the deck.
“A great finish can be the difference between a win and a loss,” she said. “It has made the difference between a gold medal and a silver medal! So I want you to be really aggressive at the wall and do a great finish. Eyes down! Arms extended! Keep your legs going.”
Gemmell, meantime, was quizzing his charges on the opposite side of the pool as they bobbed up and down in the water, riveted on his instruction.
“How many strokes did you take? How many breaths?”
The fewer of each, the better. But at this stage, simply getting them to focus on what they were doing in the water, and being accountable for it, is part of the process.
“For so many of our coaches, at one time in our career we coached younger, developing kids,” Gemmell said, explaining his own thrill in coaching Ledecky at 8 a.m., followed by a gaggle of 9-year-olds an hour later. “Getting to the Olympic level is such a process, and they need to be doing the right things in the formative years.”