The future is now
Once thought of as a 2016 contender, Katie Ledecky, 15, is pushing for London
Katie Ledecky doesn't get interviewed much.
Asked to name a hidden talent, the rising sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart (Bethesda, Md.) stumbles around a bit, and in spite of a few suggestions from her coach, Yuri Suguiyama, eventually gives up.
Not singing, not dancing, not even, jokingly, lawn darts.
Perhaps when you're just 15 and one of the best 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle swimmers in the U.S., one talent -- winning races -- is enough.
But, as any coach would agree, practice pays off down the road, so nervously answering a few questions this past spring could help immensely as she embarks on her first trip to the U.S. Olympic team trials, which begin Monday in Omaha, Neb.
After posting some eye-popping times as a 13-year-old, Ledecky entered the 2011-12 season well-known in the swimming community, though she was thought of as an Olympic hopeful for 2016, not 2012. However, that was before she made a serious statement at the Charlotte UltraSwim Grand Prix in May. Swimming against Olympic veterans, Ledecky proved herself to be a threat, shaving time from her personal best in each event and winning the 800 by 10 seconds over fellow teenager Gillian Ryan in 8:25.85 -- the fourth-fastest time in the world this year. In the 200, she finished fifth behind Allison Schmitt and Katie Hoff, among others, and was topped only by Schmitt in the 400.
"[When I think of the trials meet] I think of an awesome atmosphere, a great pool, great competition," Ledecky said. "It's going to be a fast meet and a lot of fun."
When she was younger, Ledecky looked up to swimmers like Hoff and Kate Ziegler. Now, though, she says: "I've swum against them a few times. I've started to get used to it a little bit."
The top two swimmers in each event make the Olympic team, and that objective, win-and-you're-in atmosphere suits the way Ledecky looks at swimming -- you get out what you put in.
"I try to make the good days great and take something positive from the days I'm not feeling good -- work on technique or something like that," Ledecky said.
Suguiyama, a star swimmer in his own right a decade ago at the University of North Carolina, calls his prized pupil "the best 14- or 15-year-old I've seen come through this club" and notes that she has a unique ability to intensely focus on each race.
"She's humble and trying to get better, but when you put her in a race, things do change. She's not as unassuming as you might think," he said. "She really enjoys winning, but when she's had a disappointment, she's been able to handle it. [We say], 'It's a bummer,' but then it's time to move on. She's done a really good job with that."
Nineteen of her Curl-Burke club swimming teammates qualified for the trials in Omaha, so Ledecky will have plenty of company. That familiarity will help, but what ultimately would make for a successful Olympic trials?
"I want to make finals in at least one event, hopefully two or three," said Ledecky, who is noticeably more relaxed when talking about swimming than anything else. "Just placing as high as I can. I just want to come out of it knowing I've done my best."
And for someone who might swim four freestyle events in Omaha (Ledecky has also qualified for the 100 free, but might drop the event depending on the competition schedule), Ledecky finally stumbled upon her hidden talent.
"When I was younger, butterfly may have been my better stroke," she said.
"She's a great IM'er and a great butterflyer," he said. "For the rest of her life, she won't just be swimming freestyle."
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