RIO DE JANEIRO — At 19, U.S. Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky is already drawing comparisons to Michael Phelps, the most accomplished Olympian of all time.
After winning gold in the 800-meter freestyle as a 15-year-old in London’s 2012 games, Ledecky dominated this month in Rio — becoming the first woman swimmer since 1968 to win gold in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle events as part of a four-gold, one-silver medal Olympics. She currently holds three world records, and her five-career gold medals are just one short of Phelps’ six golds through his first two Olympics. Both swimmers were just 19 years old in their second times at the Olympics.
More significantly than her accomplishments in the pool, Ledecky, a Bethesda, Md., native, is a devout, actively practicing Catholic. She credits her faith to a strong Catholic formation, which included attending Little Flower Catholic School through eighth grade and then Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart for high school.
“It’s a big part of who I am and how I’ve made it here,” Ledecky said of her Catholic faith to the Register, after breaking her own world record in the 800-meter freestyle event on Aug. 12.
She spoke with the Register throughout her record-setting Olympics in Rio, discussing her spiritual growth, her goals for college and her legacy thus far in her young career.
Has your faith changed during these last four years, as you’ve transformed from an Olympic first-timer to one of the world’s most dominant athletes?
I think the beauty of Catholicism is its consistency through both successes and difficulties. I’ve counted on my faith to give me strength through both training and competition — but also in school, with my family and everyday life.
So while my goals in the pool have changed, my faith remains something that’s consistent and something I can always rely on.
Do you share your faith with your U.S. teammates?
I’m open to talking about it if anyone expresses interest in that. Everyone has their own support systems, whether that be family, community, faith or a combination of the three. I’ve been fortunate and thankful to have great support from my family, coaches and teammates, as well as people back home and many who have traveled to watch me. That combination has been important.
What do you appreciate most about Catholicism?
I think our devotion to Mary is very beautiful. She has a sacred role in Catholicism, and her strong faith and humility are things we can learn from.
What’s the significance of saying the Hail Mary before your races?
More than anything, praying just helps me to concentrate and let go of things that don’t matter in that moment. It gives me peace knowing I’m in good hands.
You’re heading to Stanford University next month for your freshman year. What are you most looking forward to at college?
I’m most looking forward to getting to go to class with my teammates. It’s a new experience, and it’s going to be really neat. It’s going to be really good for my athletic and academic pursuits.
At Stanford, you don’t find out your roommate until moving day, which is kind of unique. I’ll probably get antsy and want to get in the pool, splash around a little bit.
What’s guiding you to attend college as an amateur swimmer, when you could easily make millions of dollars between competition and sponsorships as a professional?
I’m only 19, and I don’t feel like I need to represent something bigger than my teammates, coaches, friends and family. Down the road, I want to be a professional swimmer. But, first, I want to get an education. These last four years would have been a little different if I’d been a professional, for sure.
Is it possible to put your dominance of women’s swimming in perspective at this point?
I’m always pushing myself and seeing what I can do. That has always been the biggest goal. Dominance is never something I think about: that would be basing my goals on other people, and I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do.
Did you achieve your goals for Rio?
After the 2013 World Championships, I had three goals for the Olympics: to swim 3:56 or better in the 400-meter freestyle, break 8:05 in the 800 and win gold in the 200. I achieved all of those, and, soon, it will be time to set some new goals.
What’s it like swimming on the same team and being compared with the greatest Olympian of all time?
It has been amazing to watch what Michael has done. He has inspired many of us ever since we were young, and it really shows how much of an impact he has made.
Some people have asked if I carry the torch now that he is leaving. But I think our team, collectively, is going to try to carry the sport and represent U.S.A. swimming the way he has for so many years.
What was the best part of your week in Rio?
Achieving my goals and having so much fun with my teammates. Team USA has been doing great, and we feed off of each other's energy.
Also, during the medal ceremonies, when the flag was going up, my family was right there, and I was looking at them the whole time. Those were very emotional moments.
Register correspondent Chris Kudialis filed this report from Rio de Janeiro.