It had to be a hoax, women debated in the parking lot. There was no way she was here.
Katie Ledecky blended in beside fellow Montgomery County Swim League competitors Saturday morning like she wasn’t the talk of the Palisades pool. This was where she fell in love with the freestyle stroke, long before the Olympic gold medal and world records.
When the Palisades Porpoises recited their chant, Ledecky joined them and shouted the rhyming lyrics with a smile. When the first race against the North Chevy Chase Sharx began, Ledecky cheered on the Palisades swimmers. But when it was time for Ledecky to swim, she couldn’t blend in anymore, casually shattering a handful of records in front of a crowd that went silent only when she was in the pool.
In Ledecky’s return to Palisades, she did her best to escape her newfound celebrity and go back to her swimming roots. But the lines for autographs and selfies with the local star reinforced reality — there is no escape.
Ledecky, a rising senior at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and a two-time All-Met Swimmer of the Year, took it in stride, posing for every picture and signing every swim cap. In a schedule that is packed with high-stakes meets and even higher expectations, this race was all fun.
“It’s a little different, but it’s the same fun,” Ledecky said.
Parents and grandparents fled the comfort of their shady seats to get as close as they could to the edge of the pool when Ledecky raced. Smart phones and cameras turned toward her. Imagine if Meryl Streep decided to do a high school play.
“Where’s her compression suit?” one woman asked.
“That pool looks too small for her,” a man said as she blew by other swimmers.
The 25-meter-long pool was a second home for Ledecky when she started swimming at age 6. The last time she swam with Palisades was in 2011, before she won the gold medal for the 800-meter freestyle in the London Olympics and set the world records in the 1,500 and 800 freestyle. She was just a normal teenager then, and Saturday felt familiar.
“I went to swim practice for two hours, then came here, and that’s what I did when I was younger,” Ledecky said. “It just felt like the same kind of routine when I was 11 or 12.”
Before the season, Ledecky told Palisades Coach Gerri Diamond that she wanted to return for a home meet this summer. With international competitions and the 2016 Summer Olympics on the horizon, Ledecky said she’s not sure how many more, if any, Palisades meets are in her future.
If Saturday’s meet was her last, she left her mark, comfortably breaking the county record in the 100 freestyle (55.75) and the 100 individual medley (1:04.53). She also swam in the 50 butterfly and the 100 backstroke, winning both events and breaking the pool records.
Each stroke was accompanied by a running commentary from the gallery. “It’s just amazing these girls get to swim next to her,” one woman said. Kids from the North Chevy Chase team watched Ledecky closely and asked each other what tips they could pick up. Mary Gen Ledecky, Katie’s mother, listened to parent after parent who wanted to tell her how nice Katie was to their child or how special it was to see her swim.
“I was surprised she was going to be swimming,” said North Chevy Chase Coach Kevin Wagman. “The first thing I did was tell my dad. He was an MCSL coach before me, and we loved watching her.”
If Katie Ledecky tried to walk from one end of the pool to the other, an entourage followed. Some little girls didn’t have a specific request for her — they just wanted to be near the star while they still had the chance.
When the meet was over, Ledecky put her Team USA hat on and proceeded to the team’s barbecue, just like old times. Kind of.
“I remember learning how to breathe freestyle when I was 6 on that ladder,” Ledecky said. “There are so many memories at this pool, and it’s something I never want to forget.”