- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2012

Katie Ledecky was just 11 years old the last time the nation’s best swimmers packed Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, vying for one of 26 spots on the 2008 U.S. Olympic swimming team.

At that time, the then-elementary schooler couldn’t even fathom representing her country on such a grand stage. It was nothing but a pipe dream.

But Sunday it became a reality for the Bethesda native, as a first-place finish in the women’s 800-meter freestyle guaranteed Ledecky’s Olympic team berth and made her the youngest U.S. swimmer headed to London.

“Four years ago, I never knew how to qualify for an Olympics trials. I thought it was this unreal thing,” Ledecky said after the race. “It’s just unbelievable to think back where I was and to think about the work I’ve put in in the last couple of months with my coach, who has prepared me, and I had a lot of confidence going into that race.”

With a time of 8:19.78, Ledecky clocked in more than two seconds before second-place finisher and 2008 Olympian Kate Ziegler (8:21.87). Ziegler, of Great Falls, failed to make the finals in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle in Beijing but will get another crack at making the medal podium this go-around.

“The last four years has been a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but it’s been a really good journey,” Ziegler said. “My disappointments have definitely shaped me into the person and the swimmer I am today, and I wouldn’t be here swimming like this or enjoying swimming so much, had I not had all the experiences I’ve had.”

Likely joining Ledecky and Ziegler on the Olympic Team will be Sterling native and University of Virginia alumnus Matt McLean. He finished sixth in men’s 200-meter freestyle final Wednesday and probably will compete in the men’s 800-meter freestyle relay in London. Swimmers who finish outside the top two in the sprint freestyle events can be added to compete in relays. Since going to this format for qualifying, the sixth-place finishers always have been included.

Ledecky’s victory in the 800-meter freestyle came five days after she barely missed making the team in the women’s 400-meter freestyle final. The high school sophomore finished second in the preliminaries Tuesday morning but was beaten by 2008 Olympians Allison Schmitt and Chloe Sutton in the final that night.

The third-place finish wasn’t enough to make the team, but Ledecky’s time of 4:05.00 broke the 15-16 age-group record for the event, which was set by four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans in 1988.

A former teenaged superstar herself, Ziegler is looking forward to her second Olympics. But she also can’t wait to watch her youngest teammate take it all in for the first time.

“I would love to [be a mentor for Katie Ledecky],” Ziegler said. “I started out my first international team when I was 16 years old or so, and I looked up to the older swimmers, and now to have that opportunity to give back.

“Just the experience that she has ahead of her is so exciting.”