LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 03: Katie Ledecky of the United States reacts after winning the Women's 800m Freestyle Final on Day 7 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre on August 3, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
After winning an improbable gold at the 2012 Olympics in the women's 800m, Katie Ledecky returned home to Bethesda, Maryland, where Amy K. Nelson met her to discuss what it's like to return from such a once in a lifetime experience.
Tuesday morning, the door to the Ledeckys' home was gently pushed open by 7-year-old Hattie Leasure, a neighbor and a budding swimmer, who idolizes the Ledeckys' daughter, Katie. Wearing a pink and white sundress, Hattie had just watched Katie's record-breaking swim for the seventh time and was a little late.
Hattie's mom, also a Katie, nudged her daughter toward the couch, encouraging her to welcome home her friend.
"Congratulations, Katie," Hattie said as she sat down, nervously twirling her fingers. "I'm just really excited and I'm glad I get to be with her."
While Hattie -- a swimmer who says she wants to make the Olympics as well one day -- once only had to share her idol with just the neighborhood and Bethesda, Maryland-area young girls, she now will have to share Ledecky with a nation. And for good reason. Ledecky, at 15 years old and the youngest of all American Olympians this year, pulled off one of the biggest upsets of these London 2012 games, winning the 800-meter freestyle swim for gold.
"Coming back has made it sink in a little more," Ledecky says.
She broke Janet Evans's U.S. record and beat out homecrowd and 800-meter favorite Rebecca Adlington in the process. How special was Ledecky's performance? When her mother, Mary Gen, realized with 200 meters to go that her daughter would win the gold, she looked around the aquatic center and couldn't believe what she witnessed.
"I saw so many British people cheering for her, and clapping for her," says Mary Gen, a former swimmer at the University of New Mexico. "As much as they wanted their own girl to win that race, I think they all knew what the outcome would be."
As the race winded down and Katie was chasing the world record, it was clear the only real drama was whether Katie would break the world record, so the Brits started to root for the American. Katie just missed that record, finishing the meet with in 8:14.63. But she beat her closest competitor by four seconds and set a U.S. record instead, besting Janet Evans's 8:16.22 mark set 23 years ago.
"She shocked the world," says her older brother Michael.
Indeed, she did. And her hometown was awaiting her arrival Monday night to celebrate her feat.
Most of the girls of Stone Ridge Sacred Heart school have only known Katie Ledecky for less than a year. Katie started her freshman year of high school last fall not as an Olympic hopeful, but more as an aspiring future Olympian.
She went to the Juniors last year and smoked the competition. She was only 14 years old, a new student at a new school, waking up at 3:45 a.m. twice a week to train in the mornings before school as well as each day after it, then coming home and doing homework before her routine rolled around to tomorrow.
"She's one of the hardest working people I've ever been around," says Michael.
Her classmates more than know it, and one of the reasons they took a bus to Dulles International Airport on Monday night to greet Katie. Connie Mitchell runs marketing for Stone Ridge and had organized a live-stream party on Friday at the school so everyone could watch Katie compete in real time. The high school has around 320 students enrolled, roughly 275 of them showed for the party. During their summer vacation.
"I think people are excited to have a local hero, a local Olympian and a gold medalist," Mitchell says.
The girls made signs, brought balloon bouquets and nervously Tweeted, took photos and gathered as a cocoon just at the customs greeting area with local television stations and gawkers awaiting her arrival.
"It's really exciting to have her come home," says classmate Meghan Zorc.
An hour before Katie's arrival an elderly woman approached me, asking "Is this for the swimmer?"
I nodded. The woman's face lit up.
"That's what I thought, I'm staying until I get a chance to see her," she said. "How exciting."
When Ledecky arrived, the girls' high-pitched screams echoed down the terminals hallways, flashes popped, and tears streamed. Her father, David, held the gold medal in its black case, and Mary Gen clutched the bouquet Katie held on the podium a few days' prior.
Strangers asked for photographs as Katie autographed little kids' t-shirts and answered every question until there were none left. She was home.
The next morning, the Ledeckys allowed me into their home. They hadn't yet sat for any interviews, and Katie was wearing a red USA shirt and black jogging pants. She's tired, I can tell, but greets me with a sweet smile. Her bouquet from the podium sits atop the mantle in the family's living room.
Her brother Michael is 18 years old and headed to Harvard this fall. Next to Hattie, of course, he is Katie's biggest fan. The shock of what she accomplished seems to manifest itself in Michael the most. Last year Katie went to the Juniors and not the World Championships as all the other senior U.S. Swim team members had. At the time, she and coach Yuri Suguiyama sat down and quietly put "making the Olympics" on her list of goals.
By June, in Omaha, she was blowing by the field at the Olympic trials, setting a record for her 800-meter time amd making the Olympic squad. That alone, was a shock. To medal, and win gold in London?
"No way we thought she'd [do it]," Mary Gen says.
As she approached the pool deck that fateful day, Katie arrived confident.
"I just felt like I was ready," she said on the steps of her Bethesda home. "When I dove in, I just felt awesome. Did what I knew how to do and what I was prepared to do.
Michael, three years older, had no idea what would happen. He had always seen his sister's resolve, her spirit, and her hard work. The two had swam together their entire lives, and he knew how good his sister could be in this event, all the hours of training she put in.
"She's been everything to me as a sibling," he said. "She's very smart, loves to learn and she doesn't allow her swimming to get in the way of that at all. Which is think is awesome. One of the great things is she doesn't have to make sacrifices because she lives a very balanced life and a very disciplined life, too."
But this was different. This was in London: the favorite, a British woman and his sister, the youngest Olympian on the U.S. Squad. So when Katie was roughly 50 meters away from touching that wall, he finally knew she would win gold. Michael, standing in the nosebleed seats was jumping and screaming and crying. A British man tapped him on the shoulder, telling him to sit down.
Michael, so happy and flustered, screamed back, "I'm her sister!" momentarily confusing that he is her brother, and she his sister.
Mary Gen and David were closer to the pool, the beneficiaries of some kind ushers who realized their daughter was competing and thus allowed them closer seats. For Mary Gen, who had discussed with her husband the night before how to have a positive conversation with Katie if she didn't medal, it was a richly rewarding experience. It was also one filled with shock.
"It's starting to become more real now that we're home," she says.
Michael is trying to describe the power of Katie in the 800-meter and that's when he realizes he's never seen her lose the meet. Not that he can remember, anyway. He then invokes one of the best thoroughbreds of all time.
"People compare her to Secretariat because she goes out fast no matter what. She doesn't let anybody beat her," Michael says.
I then tell him Secretariat was quite a horse.
"Yes," he says, "and Katie's quite a swimmer."
When the Ledeckys pulled into their home late Monday night, their front yard had been adorned with American flags thoughtfully planted into the ground leading up to the front door, with posters hanging on the front of the house, images of her gold medal-winning swim, and a handmade one with her name in red-and-blue magic marker.
"I've lived in the DC-area my entire life and I've never seen anything like this," says Katie Leasure, Hattie's mother. "It's incredible. I think the entire community is thrilled and thrilled for the accomplishment and I think everyone is rallying behind and she's inspiring a lot of people."
There hasn't been much time to process it all, and when Hattie says how many times she's watched Katie's race and brings over a congratulatory card she made by hand, it starts to hit Katie Ledecky. She struggles to not cry, and keeps smiling, looking like she thinks that if she smiles, the tears won't fall. It doesn't work, they fall anyway.
"It's really neat hearing stories like that," she says. "I've heard a lot of stories like that, of people watching. It's really touching."
While I leave the Ledecky home in the late afternoon, the home phone keeps ringing. Katie has three more interviews with local TV stations scheduled, and certainly more to come. How will she handle the fame, the pressure, the widespread idolization?
"I think we'll try and keep it normal as we can," Mary Gen says. "She will handle it very well."
For those who know her, there seems little doubt of that. Her brother knows what's ahead, he also know his sister is focused on her goals.
"She's bound to accomplish even greater things," he says. "I know that she's not going to let any pressure get to her. She didn't let it happen at the Olympics. As long as she keeps that balanced lifestyle, she's going to be great."
When I ask Mary Gen what she wants people to know about her daughter, she mentions Katie's kindness, her loyalty, her sincerity. After a checklist of attributes, I mention that her daughter is also a gold medalist.
"She is a gold medalist, and boy, are we thrilled about that," Mary Gen says. "But she is just an earnest, hard-working 15-year-old. And it paid off."
Soon Katie will return to Stone Ridge, and soon, she will return to the pool. She will keep getting up those early mornings, and she will keep training, practicing, and instead of trying to defy expectations she now must live up to them. I ask her if she has goals.
"I think I'll sit back down and set some new goals," she says. "Nothing specific yet."
I ask if she'll share them when she's ready.
"Ah, probably not," she says. "I think the best thing is to keep the goals to yourself."
With so many wanting so much of her right now, at least Katie Ledecky is keeping one thing for herself. That, and of course her gold medal.