Before she dove off her block in lane three at a race last week, Katie Ledecky clapped three times. The 15-year-old had done the ritual for years, but not in London five months ago, before she won a gold medal. It was too loud, and she didn’t want to disrupt her rhythm.
Now she was doing it again, at a small high school pool in McLean, hoping to lead her team to an Independent School League title.
Above, she could see people in the bleachers rise to their feet, trying to catch a glimpse. Girls selling food to raise money for their prom stopped and rushed into a workout room to peer through windows overlooking the pool. Swimmers wrapped in towels crowded the edge of the deck, many with camera phones pointed at Ledecky. Some of her high school opponents on the blocks just stared.
She was a spectacle, and she set a meet record in the race — the 200-yard individual medley. Afterward, she waited an hour in a corner of the natatorium with her Stone Ridge teammates, laughing and cheering. Then she snuck back to the blocks for the 500 freestyle, where she lapped everyone. And when she was done, she turned around and stood in the water. She lifted her goggles onto her forehead, and rung out her ears. Then she extended her elbows onto the concrete edge of the pool, as if she were relaxing on a couch, and waited for the rest of the field to finish.
“Every race that I have, whether it’s a high school meet or a race at the Olympics,” Ledecky said, “I never feel the pressure.”
Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle race in London on Aug, 3 — an event that dwarfs the 500 she regularly swims for her Bethesda school. She didn’t just win the race, she won it by four seconds, shattering the 23-year-old U.S. record with a time of 8 minutes 14.63 seconds. That August day, Ledecky became an international star and a rarity in American sports — a true prodigy.
But this winter, the prodigy is precisely where she knows she belongs — back in the pool alongside her high school teammates.
“If I could compare the two, I would say high school swimming is a lot more team oriented,” Ledecky said. “These are some of my best friends, and I know they’ll be my best friends in 20, 30, 40 years.”
Looking ahead to those years, instead of flashing back on the 15th year of her life, has brought calm to Ledecky. Last weekend, when Stone Ridge won the ISL championship for the first time in 10 years, Ledecky looked genuinely happy. After officials announced her team had won, Ledecky dove into the pool with her Gator teammates and swam around for awhile, splashing and hanging on them, like she was at a local water hole on a hot summer day. She took pictures with the team, hugged well-wishers, and went out to dinner with everyone after. And she hopes to do it all again Saturday night at the Washington Metropolitan Prep School Swim & Dive League Championships at the Takoma Aquatic Center, where the circus could be two-fold.
“I just want to represent my school as well as I can,” Ledecky said. “It’s not something where I feel like, ‘Oh I’m an Olympic gold medalist, I better win this race or else it’s going to look really silly.’ I don’t feel that at all. There are great swimmers in the area, and if I don’t win, it’s fine.”
She has taught herself how to deal with the hoopla. The everyday questions are countless for Ledecky. How do you learn how to sign an autograph at 15? How do you organize your thoughts for countless interviews? Or act calmly on a visit to the White House earlier this fall? And how do you still win every individual race against high school girls who are trying to make a name for themselves by beating you?
“I can only imagine the pressure. . . the external pressure there may be,” said Malcolm McCluskey, the director of studies at the school, who enjoyed the “once in a lifetime opportunity” of a White House visit with Ledecky. “I mean, you go out in your first international showing and you win a gold medal, and then you come back to some of these high school meets. . . . I believe there is a great amount of pressure. Kid loves to win. And she loves to race.”
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.”
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