- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Nine years ago, an eager Katie Ledecky waited patiently outside the pool at the University of Maryland in hopes of meeting then-18-year-old Michael Phelps, a soon to be two-time Olympian and now the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.

“I’ll never forget. He was walking out carrying his kick boards, and there were a few kids who were asking for autographs,” said Ledecky’s mother, Mary Gen. “He crouched down, gave them all autographs, then he picked up his kick boards, walked to his car and he drove home. It was such a nice thing.”

Now, Phelps isn’t just role model for the 15-year-old Bethesda native. He’s a teammate.

At the 2012 Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., Ledecky won the 800-meter freestyle event with a time of 8:19.78, solidifying her spot as the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team. She’ll swim in the preliminaries of the event Thursday for a spot in Friday’s final.

Mary Gen Ledecky said her daughter, who arrived in Europe more than two weeks ago in order to adjust to the time change, has fit right in with the rest of Team USA. It’s a squad largely comprised of swimmers she’s watched and idolized since she began swimming for her first team, the Palisades Porpoises, as a 6-year-old.

But even though the soon-to-be high school sophomore is now competing with and against some of the best athletes in the world, she’s not intimidated.

“I’m hoping that she’s soaking it all in,” Mary Gen Ledecky said. “I think that they’ve all gone out of their way to make her feel really welcome and part of the team. I’m in awe of some of those swimmers that are on that team for sure, and I’m sure she is as well. She has a number of their autographs from some autograph sessions she’s been to in the past.”

Katie Ledecky first qualified for the Olympic Trials in May 2011, when she earned a cut in the 400-meter freestyle at a swim meet in Cary, N.C. Two months later, she earned her second cut in the 800-meter freestyle.

It was easy to miss her small frame in a sea of seasoned veterans at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, but the venue buzzed with chatter about the 15-year-old swimming prodigy. Ledecky had more than 40 friends and family members, including 14 of 15 cousins, cheering her on in Omaha.

After all, swimming is in her lineage.

Mary Gen Ledecky swam for the University of New Mexico, and her brother Michael, a soon-to-be freshman at Harvard University, also swims for the Curl Burke Swim Club. Her grandfather, who was a WWII veteran, loved the sport so much he helped spur the construction of an indoor swimming pool in his hometown in North Dakota.

“For him to now have a granddaughter swimming in the Olympics,” Mary Gen Ledecky said, “that’s such a thrill.”

Katie swims an average of 8,000 meters or yards per day, six days a week. Since the Olympic Trials ended July 2, her life has been a whirlwind in cities and countries far from her home.

Katie has squeezed in time to email and FaceTime her family in between workouts and is so far enjoying her new temporary home in the Olympic village. The Ledeckys will spend 12 days in London for the games.

Mary Gen Ledecky can easily explain her daughter’s love for swimming and the hard work she’s put in to get where she is. But what she can’t always articulate is just how great an honor being an Olympian is for Katie.

“I just can’t tell you. It makes me emotional just thinking about it,” she said. “We consider ourselves a pretty patriotic family. So for her to be there on Team USA is such a great opportunity for all of us to witness and to feel a part of.”

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