There was a hero's welcome when she arrived home from London this past August. The celebration at the airport, the throng of cameras and microphones, invitations to the White House and to a Nationals game to throw out the ceremonial first pitch all awaited her. But Katie Ledecky had other things on her mind.
There were the summer reading assignments to finish up, an essay due on the first day of her sophomore year at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., and a commitment to volunteer at a homeless shelter she simply would not miss.
And Olympic gold medal or not, the 15-year-old, who broke the longest-standing American swimming record, has maintained a sense of normalcy with very little effort, say those who know her best.
"Whether she had won at the Olympics or not," said Ledecky's mother, Mary Gen, "I think she would continue to work really hard in school. She has a great group of friends who support her and she supports them. And she still wants to continue to compete and train and improve. None of that has really changed."
On the cover of the latest issue of the school's alumni magazine is Ledecky, her gold medal around her neck, the Gators' relay team around Ledecky. Her relay team. It was only fitting. When she isn't training with her Nation's Capital Swim Club, Ledecky -- like four-time Olympic gold medalist and now-pal Missy Franklin -- competes for her high school team, a far cry from international competition but necessary for the sense of community and normalcy she and her parents insist upon.
Female athletes are finding beauty in competing in the moment, but are also finding the beauty in enjoying those moments in a non-stressful manner, having fun with teammates in sharing common experiences and meeting goals, and then using their success to help others. Helping others is beautiful.” -- Katie Ledecky
Of course, the word "normal" is an increasingly relative term for a girl who is now being called, as Swimming World Magazine did this past weekend at the Winter Nationals in Austin, Texas, "likely the best female distance swimmer on the planet."
Ledecky, who broke Janet Evans' U.S. mark in the 800-meter freestyle by two seconds at the Olympics, shattered the previous Winter Nationals meet record in the 1,650 free by 20 seconds, making her the second-fastest swimmer in the event. Her time of 15:28.36 is also 10 seconds faster than the NCAA record, and she earlier won the 500 freestyle.
In London, Ledecky was considered something of an overnight sensation despite great swims in the Olympic trials, but was still overshadowed amidst the U.S. juggernaut. Accepting awards for Female Performance of the Year and Breakout Swimmer of the Year at last month's Golden Goggle Awards in New York, Ledecky spoke graciously about how competing late in the meet allowed her to be inspired by her teammates' earlier performances. It should also be noted that in presenting her with her first award, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg thoroughly botched the pronunciation of her name.
Asked about her relatively low profile, Ledecky said it is an advantage.
"I think that benefited me going into the [Olympic final]," she said. "I haven't really thought about it much, but I guess it's good to stay under the radar."
And though she has now firmly established herself on the world-class level, Ledecky said the image she has of herself as a swimmer, as well as her expectations, have not changed all that much.
"I guess a little bit, not substantially, though," she said. "Just like before I went to the Olympics, I just want to give my best every time. Whether it's faster than the last time, I just try to go into everything with the same mindset. I guess it worked before."
Asked at the airport in August for her favorite Olympic memory, Ledecky answered simply, "Touching the wall," and still calls it "a surreal moment."
"I knew I was ahead, but I didn't let up until right when I touched the wall," she said. "I didn't really know exactly what my time was going to be and I didn't really care about my time, I just knew I had won. When I hit the wall, it was like waking up from a dream almost. It's hard to even describe. I think I just stared at the scoreboard and tried to comprehend it all."
As for the attention she has received since, it is clear it is merely a function of the process.
"I don't control it or anything, I don't pay attention to any of it. I just do my swimming and whatever comes from it, comes from it," Ledecky said.
What has come from it this fall included a school assembly in her honor and a moment Malcolm McCluskey, director of studies for the (K-12) Stone Ridge Upper School, said he won't soon forget.
"Kids got to ask questions," he recalled, "and Katie was asked by one student, 'What allows you to stay so grounded?' and she said, 'Well, you guys, my school. I'm one of you.' I think that really says it."
During the same assembly, a video was shown of her record-setting Olympic triumph with a window on the screen showing the school's reaction at a viewing party as students madly cheered her on.
Katie's reaction? "I thought, 'Gosh, I wish I was there,'" she said.
Ledecky has already competed in two of three Stone Ridge meets, and coach Bob Walker said he has received no resistance from teammates or opposition in the swimming-rich Capital Beltway.
"Sure, her exceptional skills put her far above and beyond others in the area, but the Katies, Missy Franklins and Lia Neals [the 17-year-old bronze medalist from New York and Ledecky's Olympic training roommate] just want to be part of the student body like every other high school kid," Walker said.
"If you never knew Katie had any ability, she's a great person, the nicest, most gifted student you would love to have in your school anyway," he added. "All that set aside, she excels in swimming a little more than everyone else. But the other things are what makes her her."
Friends and teachers attribute that largely to her parents and a family whose biggest adjustment this fall has not been having a gold medalist back home, but rather a caring and supportive big brother away at college.
"In my mind, that is probably the biggest thing that has changed," said Katie of her brother, Michael, now in his freshman year at Harvard. "He's been such a big part of my life."
Other than that, she said, not much is different.
"On occasion somebody recognizes me, but I guess that was more noticeable in the couple weeks after the Olympics," she said. "I'm really back in a normal routine."
"Because of her family support, it's not like, 'Oooh, Katie, Katie.' Katie doesn't expect anything else that anyone else wouldn't get here," McCluskey said. "She has a great sense of fairness and justice. I'm sure her friends ask her occasionally for this or that, but I've never heard that."
Miranda Whitmore, dean of studies for the 322-student upper school and Ledecky's English teacher (British literature), described instead a "note of protectiveness" Katie's classmates have for her.
"They work hard to strike a balance with her and make sure she gets to be just Katie and have a normal school day when she wants to," Whitmore said. "That has really been a pleasure to watch."
Also a pleasure to watch, say her parents and teachers, has been a gradual transformation from shy schoolgirl to a public figure now able to speak before large groups.
"Sometimes I'll sit and listen to a question she might be asked and say to myself, 'I wonder how she'll answer that,' and then hear what she says and think, 'Wow, what a good answer,'" said Mary Gen. "I think Katie has learned a lot through this and has gained so much. She feels good talking to other people about [her Olympic experience]. It's really a win-win."
Whitmore said she was recently preparing her freshman English class for their first major exam and asked how they planned to prepare and what their strategy would be.
"One student raised her hand, a swimmer, and asked, 'Don't you teach Katie Ledecky? I think she sits right over there,'" Whitmore said. "Then she quoted, word for word, what Katie had said at the assembly about her strategy for races, breaking down bigger goals into smaller goals and clearing her mind before big competitions. And the other girls said, 'Yeah, yeah, that's a great idea.'"
Whitmore went to the board and, with a wink, listed Katie's points under the heading: WWKLD or "What Would Katie Ledecky Do?"
When Ledecky came into the classroom next, Whitmore told her about it.
"She just shrugged her shoulders," Whitmore said, "and started laughing."