After swimming for five Olympic medals — four gold and one silver — in Rio, Katie Ledecky is finally home.
The 19-year-old Bethesda native returned Wednesday to the United States after dominating the Rio Games. But to many of the fans and friends waiting for the swimmer at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, the international fame hasn’t changed their image of Ledecky.
She is simply Katie — a friend, former Stone Ridge teammate and down-to-earth role model. The victories were hardly a surprise to those who know her best.
“She set out to win five Olympic medals, and she did,” said Emily Deale, one of Ledecky’s co-captains on the Stone Ridge swim team. “It’s not really surprising. If you know Katie at all, you know that when she sets a goal for herself, she can do it.”
The Stone Ridge teammates were the first to mob Ledecky as she exited the gates leading to the airport’s baggage-claim area. Ledecky’s face flushed red and broke into her now famous smile while receiving hugs from the several dozen friends and family that arrived to greet her.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Ledecky said of the crowd that gathered to celebrate her return. “It’s great to see my friends and to celebrate [this] moment with them. They’ve been a big part of [it] the last couple of years.”
Ledecky signed autographs and posed for photos with fans with the five Olympic medals draped perfectly around her neck, the silver in the center. It was, after all, just a few days ago that Michael Phelps taught Ledecky how to put on her Olympic medals during a photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated cover.
Masood Javeed, a sales assistant at the shop across the baggage claim, was thrilled to find a stack of that very magazine featuring Ledecky, Phelps and Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles on the cover when he arrived for work Wednesday morning.
Javeed would soon find out that Ledecky herself would be arriving just a few feet from where he works. He could hardly contain his excitement.
“Not a single day I miss the Olympics,” said the 61-year-old Sterling resident. “I would go home after work and sit in front of the TV, eating and watching the Olympics. … When she broke the world record, I got so excited for her.”
Most of the supporters awaiting Ledecky had ties to Stone Ridge, where Ledecky spent four years as a student and many of her best friends were on the school’s swim team. Several of the same people were there for Ledecky’s return from the London Olympics, where she won her first gold medal in the women’s 800-meter freestyle. Many wore matching “Katie Ledecky Team USA Rio 2016” T-shirts Wednesday afternoon, and some even held up a banner.
“We know Katie is a terrific young woman,” said Catherine Ronan Karrels, the head of school at Stone Ridge. “She’s humble, and has a quiet, gentle way about her. … She was a normal student, a regular kid, and my hope is that she can remain that way. I believe that she will.”
Among the several fans gathered for Ledecky were Zack Schwartz and his two children, Avery and Noah. While traveling from Houston to Washington, Schwartz was seated a few rows behind his kids, so he approached the young woman sitting next to them and asked whether they could switch seats.
That person was Katie Ledecky.
“I got halfway through my little ask and realized I was talking to Katie Ledecky,” said the 35-year-old Schwartz. “When I was asking, I got a look at her face, I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m talking to Katie Ledecky.’ ”
Ledecky ended up switching seats, but not before Schwartz received a few displeased looks from his pre-teen children.
“They were a little angry at their father,” Schwartz said with a laugh.
Fans continued to swarm Ledecky as she slowly made her way over to her news conference, where she spoke about her next athletic chapter (swimming for Stanford), her medals (they weigh more than the one from London) and what she is looking forward to most (“eating a home-cooked meal and sleeping in my own bed”).
She then walked out of the airport alongside her parents and brother, with a smile plastered on her face and more hugs to give. Here, among her friends and family, she was just another teenager who needed to head home to go shopping for college.
“It might take some getting used to,” Ledecky said of the attention, “but I’ll just go with the flow and enjoy everything.”