There were two people in the Aquatic Centre who knew she wouldn’t, that this slight, auburn-haired progeny from Bethesda, with her inside-the-beltway skybox connections, had iron in her. With 200 meters still to go, Dave and Mary Gen Ledecky turned to each other and embraced. A quarter of the race remained, but as far as Ledecky’s parents were concerned, it was over. They understood what others would hardly suspect, from opponents to schoolgirl friends at the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart.
“If you see her on the street or sit with her at lunch, you wouldn’t know she can close on you like that,” Mary Gen said.
In the end Ledecky yielded a world record by a fraction, merely breaking the American mark for the 800 meters. When it was over, the youngest member of the U.S. swim team did with her gold medal what any 15-year-old does with a valuable piece of jewelry she has been given but is not yet old enough to wear. She gave it to her mother for safekeeping.
“Let me see it,” Mary Gen said.
“That’s a big honkin’ gold medal,” Dave said.
Less than a day later, Ledecky’s parents sat in the bar of a hotel on the Thames riverbank with a plate-glass view of Parliament’s Big Ben clock tower behind them, still exhilarated with their daughter’s achievement and squint-eyed with lack of sleep. She had just won what was arguably the most astounding medal of the entire London Games, one so unforeseen on the international stage that it led to the following exchanges in her post-race press conference.
Question: “What grade will you be in this fall?”
Question: “You’re very young. Are you surprised . . . ?”
Answer: “I didn’t really expect gold but, ummm. I’ll take it.”
Ledecky’s arrival on the international stage is so premature that as recently as September she wasn’t even thinking about swimming in London, let alone winning a medal, she said. Her coach, Yuri Suguiyama, sat her down for a conversation at the beginning of the fall season.
“Now Katie, what would be the ultimate goal?” he asked.
“I dunno,” she replied.
“Maybe the Olympics?” he suggested.
“Yeah,” she said.
He made her say it aloud — with conviction. The he asked her to repeat it. Afterwards she went home and repeated her new ambition to her mother. “But I don’t want to tell anyone,” she said uncertainly. Mary Gen replied, “Then don’t talk to me about it.”
The rest of the Ledecky family fully expected Katie to compete for a medal in London. Two years ago her uncle, Jon Ledecky, told his friend and one-time partner Ted Leonsis to “watch out for Katie and her upside in the pool.”