When the long day was finally over, they gathered together in a hotel room, their first in-person meeting in 1½ years, to celebrate.
“She’d just had this incredible accomplishment, winning the 200 and 1,500, and she just walks in like, ‘Hi,’ ” Jon said. “I mean, she’s just Katie. She’ll always be little Katie to me.”
The late-night gathering was a high point in a unique and memorable week for the Ledecky family. Jon Ledecky is co-owner of the New York Islanders, locked in a best-of-seven conference finals series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team is trying to reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in nearly 40 years. But he wasn’t going to let that keep him from his niece’s Olympic trials.
“Family is the most important thing to me,” he said. “It’s just great to be able to support somebody I love so much. It’s been great to be Uncle Jon.”
While the swimmer’s week has been a frenzy of laps and medals, her uncle’s has amounted to a whirlwind of flights and hotel rooms. He was in Tampa to watch the Islanders win Game 1 on Sunday afternoon and then caught a late flight to Omaha. He didn’t get to his downtown hotel until around 1 a.m. Knowing he missed dinner, Katie ordered him a salad from a food-delivery service and had it waiting in his hotel room.
“It’s incredible. I mean, he’s such a great supporter,” Katie said this week. “ … I just appreciate the effort he’s made so much. It’s so cool that we have these things going on right now together, and I hope he’s getting a little bit of rest.”
Jon, who bought the Islanders in 2014, has been there for the whole journey. From youth and high school meets around the Washington area to the high-stakes races around the globe — Barcelona, London, Rio de Janeiro, Budapest, Kazan — Uncle Jon was always there.
“They’re all great memories,” he said, “and this is another wonderful memory to be here at the Olympic trials.”
Now they both could be on the cusp of something bigger, this week serving as an appetizer of sorts. As Ted Leonsis, John Ledecky’s former partner and longtime friend, puts it: “This could be the summer of Ledecky — Katie and Jon — and no one deserves great success more.”
With a third Summer Games on tap and six Olympic medals already in her trophy case, Katie Ledecky has changed things for everyone in the tightknit family. Jon, 63, was well-known in Washington and New York circles as a successful businessman and minority owner of the NHL’s Capitals and NBA’s Wizards. But now everyone knows his name — at least his last name.
“I joke with Katie, ‘Thank you so much for winning those gold medals because I can get a reservation in any restaurant in New York,’ ” he said.
Since Katie and her brother, Michael, were little, their uncle was always dabbling in professional sports. He tried to buy into storied sports franchises such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Montreal Canadiens. And he was a founding partner in Leonsis’s ownership group that purchased the Capitals in 1999, along with a minority stake in the Wizards. The entire Ledecky family was a fixture at most home games, and the family still chuckles at photos of the Ledecky children alongside Michael Jordan and Katie’s drawings of Slapshot, the Capitals’ mascot.
“We decided on Day One that we would always be ‘Family First,’ ” Leonsis said. “We were both children born into immigrant households and both very close to our parents and played and loved sports. … Their children and my children became very close friends. Our owners’ box was like a big ethnic dinner party — the more children the better to come and enjoy games and grow up together as a part of a community and a big extended family.”
Jon Ledecky sold his share to Leonsis in 2001. He failed in a bid to purchase the Athletics and then put together a group to buy Washington’s new Major League Baseball team, losing out to Ted Lerner.
Along with his college roommate, Scott Malkin, he purchased the Islanders in 2014, becoming a visible and available owner, quickly establishing himself as a favorite among fans. He cheers with them in the stands, chats with them after games, even sits among them riding the train from Manhattan to Long Island some nights. “Owner Jon Ledecky joined Islanders fans’ raucous postgame celebration,” a New York Post headline read this month after the Islanders advanced to the conference finals.
The hockey team has taken the entire Ledecky family on a fun ride this season. With her pandemic routine largely limited to her Palo Alto, Calif., apartment and the training pool at Stanford, Katie was able to watch nearly every Islanders game this season, often texting with her family before, during and after.
“During the pandemic,” she said, “I made sure I was able to watch the games because it provided a little bit of entertainment.”
As locked in as she is this week, she’s still following the team, refreshing her phone for updates and even announcing a midgame score to reporters during a post-race news conference. Her parents, David and Mary Gen, and her brother also have been following the action, dissecting swim times some nights and power-play scoring opportunities on others.
“There’s such a buildup to these races,” Jon said. “We’re all nervous in a good way for Katie, but I think the Islanders have been a great diversion for the family.”
On Thursday afternoon, Jon again boarded a plane, this one taking him back to New York for Game 3. Katie had no races scheduled until Friday, so she finally was going to be able to watch all the action with her family in Omaha.
For Jon, rooting for his niece and his hockey team can be fun and exciting, of course — but they are different experiences.
“The joy that the Islanders give the fans and the community is fantastic, and I’m just small part of that,” Jon said. “I think with Katie, it’s wonderful from a personal level to see her accomplishments. I’m just so impressed with Katie — I mean, the winning is great — but in terms of her wanting to make a difference in the world.”
Because foreign visitors won’t be allowed at the Tokyo Games this summer, he won’t be able to cheer Katie in-person. But he hopes the Islanders can get past the Lightning and extend the fun into July.
So much of it is out of his control. The schedule aligned perfectly this week to allow him to shuttle back and forth, but Saturday’s Game 4 conflicts with Katie’s final trials race, the 800-meter free. He will be in Nassau Coliseum, and shortly after the puck drops, he will slip into the arena concourse to stream the swim race.
“I’ll probably have one eye on each,” he says.
He can’t miss either. But the swimming, especially, always has been about more than a medal or a finishing time.
“Family just means so much to all of us,” Jon said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why Katie’s Katie. She has an incredibly close-knit family: wonderful parents, fabulous brother. And I get to go along and just be Uncle Jon — just an incredible pleasure and honor to be part of the journey.”