Missy Franklin won gold. Then Michael Phelps did, too. Now it was Katie Ledecky’s turn.
As she climbed the starting block, more than 300 of her classmates and their parents at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda stood up cheering, watching on a big screen. Red-white-and-blue signs on the wall said, “She came. She swam. She conquers.”
The facial expressions on the children at the all-girls Catholic school ranged from ecstatic to how you would expect a child to appear while watching the scariest movie ever.
And then she was off, ready to conquer.
When Katie hit the first turn in first, the crowed went berserk. There were lots of oh my Gods, perfectly fitting for their packed gathering spot at the school — Sister Irene Good Hall. Before the race, they had prayed, a solemn but uplifting moment that ended with, “Go Katie!”
She fell slightly behind at one point, but at turn after turn, she kept hitting the wall first. One minute went by, then another. And another. First. First. She’s still first! It would be the longest 8 minutes and 14 seconds of everyone’s lives. Eight hundred meters is far.
Who were they cheering so rabidly for? She’s not just the youngest member of the U.S. women’s swim team or the star of the famous Curl-Burke Swim Club. She’s one of their favorite classmates, a good student, active in the campus ministry.
Julia Ali, the student president of the school, declared before the race that Katie was “so down to Earth you would never know she’s this amazing Olympian.”
In fact, much of the 660-student body was surprised at how awesome she’s been in the pool. “You would just never know it if you were around her,” Julia said. “She’s a really great person and we’re all really excited to cheer her on.”
Matt Shannon brought his two daughters, ages 7 and 11, both students at the school. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said. “And it’s just really cool.”
First. First. She kept hitting the wall first.
With a few laps left, some girls began crying, waving their hands in front of their faces as if to cool themselves off. Others held little U.S. flags high. Connie Mitchell, in charge of communications for the school, kept putting her hand on her forehead and staring at Catherine Ronan Karrels, the head of school.
Mitchell seemed to keep mouthing, “Oh my God.”
The tension mounted. Girls stood on their chairs. As Katie pulled away from the pack in the final lap, the cheering was loud enough to shake a church bell.
And then she won. Total pandemonium.
There were lots of hugs. And screaming. And tears.
Their classmate had just won a gold medal in the Olympics, at age 15. She will be a sophomore in a few weeks. She will go to English class with them, and she will pray with them, and she will go on being a Stone Ridge School Gator — a Gator with a gold medal.
“I think I just had a heart attack,” Karrels said. “Now we have to plan a party.”