Rio 2016

Raising gold

At just 19 years old, Katie Ledecky is the most dominant swimmer in the world. Having already set 11 world records, she is a favorite to win at the Rio Olympics in the women’s 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles. Behind her success is a strong community, loving family and an unmatched mental toughness.

← Use your keyboard to navigate →

Sound is used throughout this story. Put your headphones on for the full experience.

Use your device’s buttons to adjust volume.

Ledecky’s first international win came at the 2012 London Olympics, when, at age 15, she upset the field to win gold in the 800-meter freestyle.

Since then, she has only continued to make history in her sport. She has swum in 12 individual finals at major international meets, and has never lost.

Want to watch Ledecky break her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle?


No, just continue

The crowd behind her

Ledecky was raised in Bethesda, Md. and attended elementary school at Little Flower and high school at Stone Ridge, where she swam for the school's team all four years.

← Use your keyboard to navigate →

Ledecky committed to attend Stanford, but took a "gap year" to focus on the Olympics. She trains with the Nation’s Capital Swim Club (NCAP) at Georgetown Prep, and often heads to nearby Ize's Deli & Bagelry afterward to grab an omelet, bagel and chocolate milk.

Family and friends describe her as having contrasting personalities. Out of the water, she’s humble, but once she’s in the pool, a different Ledecky emerges.

Ledecky's humility can be attributed to the strong support from her parents, Mary Gen and David, her brother, Michael, her school and her community.

Becoming a swimmer

Swimming runs in Ledecky's family. Her mother, Mary Gen, came from a family of swimmers in Williston, N.D., and was an accomplished freestyler for the University of New Mexico in the 1970s.

← Use your keyboard to navigate →

After the Ledeckys joined the Palisades Swim and Tennis Club in Cabin John, Md., David and Mary Gen signed up the kids for the swim team to help them make friends. Katie was six at the time.

After the first summer at Palisades, Ledecky started swimming with the elite club now known as Nation's Capital Swim Club (NCAP). Yuri Suguiyama became her coach in 2008 and was with her through the 2012 London Olympics.

Even while logging hours with NCAP toward loftier goals, Ledecky chose to swim on the team at her high school, Stone Ridge of the Sacred Heart.

‘Remarkably unremarkable’

Unlike Michael Phelps, with his famously enormous wingspan, long torso and double-jointedness, Ledecky has no obvious physiological advantages.

← Use your keyboard to navigate →

What Ledecky does have above her competitors is an incredibly strong core, which prompted her coach, Suguiyama, to transition her to a “gallop” stroke, like the one used by many elite male swimmers.

The idea of making the Olympic team was hard for her to believe as an eighth-grader, but a surprise victory in the 800 free at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials put her on the team for London.

The field was strong in the 800m women's final, led by hometown favorite and then-world record holder Rebecca Adlington, but Ledecky never saw herself as a long shot. Her strong focus is another advantage she brings to the pool.

In the 800m freestyle final, Ledecky commanded an early lead, and the rest is history.

On to Rio

In the three years since London, Ledecky has switched coaches (Suguiyama took a position at Berkeley after the Olympics, and Bruce Gemmell took over), dominated at world championships in 2013 and 2015, broken 11 world records and graduated from high school.

← Use your keyboard to navigate →

Ledecky could become just the first American woman to win five gold medals in a single Olympics.

Aug. 7400m free (heats and final)
Aug. 8200m free (heats and semifinal)
Aug. 9200m free (final)
Aug. 104x200m relay (heats and final)
Aug. 11800m (heats)
Aug. 12800m (final)

Reporting Dave Sheinin and Jayne W. Orenstein

Video Jayne W. Orenstein and Dani Johnson

Design and Graphics Emily Chow and Chiqui Esteban

Restart story

Additional credits

Additional video Randolph Smith and Zoeann Murphy

Additional footage USA Swimming, Use of Olympic footage authorized by the IOC and by the USOC (36 U.S.C. § 220506),

Photos The Ledecky family, AP, USA Today, Getty Images, Reuters, EPA, Freed Photography

Music Jon Luc Hefferman/Needle Drop Co.

Restart story

Adjust volume with your device’s buttons