Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky — Kathleen in the official Federation Internationale de Natation rankings — is ahead of her time.
Having just turned 15, the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart freshman is a legitimate contender to qualify for the London Olympics in her signature events — the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyle — and will be one of the youngest swimmers at this year’s Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb.
Among American swimmers, Ledecky is ranked second in the 800 and third in the 400. She’s been timed at 8 minutes, 30.14 seconds for 800 meters and 4:08.87 in the 400 — each time would have missed the finals in Beijing four years ago but been better than middle-of-the-pack.
The top two swimmers in each event make the USA Olympic team, and she’ll be competing with recent Olympians Kate Ziegler, Chloe Sutton, Katie Hoff and Allison Schmitt for the berth. Janet Evans, 41 and a mom, is even among those trying to make the team.
Ledecky’s times in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle aren’t quite as eye-popping, but she has qualified in those events and probably will swim one of them during the trials from June 25 through July 2.
It’s heady territory for a girl who only established herself nationally when she scorched a sectional event against senior-level swimmers in Buffalo, N.Y., two summers ago. The Olympic Trials qualifying standards had yet to come out, but she and her parents knew they had seen something spectacular when she won the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles, the 400-individual medley and was the youngest member of the champion 800-meter relay team.
“She basically blew away the field as a very young swimmer,” said her father, David. “She swam against some very high-level kids who were going to swim in college, and she was beating them. That’s when we realized we were on to something.”
Does she feel like the opportunity to compete for an Olympic spot has come too soon?
“No, not really. I’ve just progressed gradually,” Ledecky said after a recent workout with Curl-Burke Swim Club teammates at American University’s Bender Arena pool. “Things come as they come, if it happens it happens. I’m not going to be upset if I don’t make it.”
Yuri Suguiyama, Ledecky’s coach and a former standout at the University of North Carolina, said his pupil is a born racer who hates to lose. So he wouldn’t be surprised if she thrives at the trials.
Her parents say they saw her competitive nature at an early age, and that’s carried through in the nine years she’s been swimming. Ledecky joined Curl-Burke’s development squad as a 6-year-old along with her older brother, Michael, who is a Harvard-bound Gonzaga College High School senior. Each of them, after watching older teammates in a competitive meet, begged to be moved up in the ranks, and they were willing to put in the work.
“Early on, she showed some real promise in her ability to understand how to do each stroke and the coordination required for the breaststroke and the butterfly,” said her mother, Mary Gen, who walked on to the University of New Mexico swim team in college. “And we liked Curl-Burke’s philosophy. They weren’t thrown into a group with a lot of yardage. They worked a lot on their technique and gradually built up their base.”
Certainly, Ledecky has some natural advantages in the sport. She’s long and lean, which suits her well for a “long axis” stroke such as freestyle, according to Suguiyama. But more than anything else, Ledecky embraces the objective nature of the sport. If you work hard in practice, you’ll be rewarded at meets.
“You have to look forward to meeting your goals,” she said.
The next few months are about setting reasonable goals and trying to, as Ledecky said, “think of 2012 as just another year with a bigger meet at the end.”
Suguiyama will be happy to see her make a statement in Omaha, but he’s also keeping an eye on her future.
“Her ascent over the past year has really been pretty rapid,” Suguiyama said. “But she’s still very young with hopefully a lot of career left ahead of her. … If she were to make the team, it would be amazing. But I’m not going to do anything right now that would sell her short in the long run.”
Ledecky said she tried other sports when she was younger — soccer and basketball — but she was drawn to swimming. Her mother doesn’t even remember teaching her to put her head underwater, because it was so easy for her. She also always had access to a pool at home and when she was visiting her mother’s family in Williston, N.D.
Mary Gen’s father, E.J. Hagan, enjoyed swimming and its health benefits and launched a campaign to build an indoor pool for the city which — with a population of just less than 15,000 — is the ninth-largest in North Dakota.
“I had seven brothers and sisters, and we all swam on the swim team there,” said Mary Gen. “And Michael and Katie swim with that team when they go back to visit their grandmother.”
While Hagan died a few years ago, Katie is proud her grandfather gave her swimming career, and the careers of hundreds of others, a boost by lobbying for the pool, which is now named in his honor.
“I just remember how loving and caring he was to me and what a great supporter of the sport in Williston,” said Ledecky, who said she’s sad he’s not here to see her now. “But my family and I always say he’s looking down at me and nudging me along in the water.”
The Olympic window sometimes opens only for a moment. Just think of all the world-class American swimmers who have been shut out of Olympic berths by the dominance of multi-event swimmers such as Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. But for now, Ledecky isn’t putting too much pressure on herself to perform this summer.
“I’m just going to go and have fun and swim my hardest,” she said.