By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
The Olympics were a dream that Katie Ledecky first entertained when talking to her coach during a goal-setting session. The Olympic gold medalist and three-time medalist at the most recent World Championships tells that story, the final of a two-part 20 Question Tuesday.
1. So when did making the Olympic team become something you thought was realistic?
Katie: Leading up to Olympic Trials, in September of 2011, I sat down with my coach at the time, Yuri Suguiyama, and we were talking about goals. He basically asked, “What would be the ultimate goal at Olympic Trials.” I was like, “I don’t know…I don’ t know.”
2. That was your final answer?
Katie: No (laughs). Finally, I said, “To make the Olympic team.” And then I said it again, because I was hesitant at first because I had no clue it was even possible. But the words coming out of my mouth like that was a crucial point. After that, we didn’t talk about it much; I just went back to work trying to make the Olympic team.
3. Was the progress there - a good reason to be optimistic?
Katie: I had my cut times from that spring, and moved my times down throughout that year. I had been doing well at the Grand Prix events, and dropping time pretty quickly heading into Olympic Trials.
4. You competed against a tough field at Trials and came in third in the 400 – which of course you’d later take gold in at Worlds – but how did you feel about the 400 at Trials?
Katie: I was pretty disappointed when it happened but at the same time there were a lot of positives to take out of it, including the National Age Group record that had stood for a long time. It was also my first big National final, so just to be in that was a big accomplishment. So to get third was a move forward.
5. How did the 200 free go at Trials in relation to what you hoped?
Katie: I finished ninth in the 200 free and just missed making the final, so I had an opportunity to make the relay in that had I finaled. That was also a disappointment, but I had dropped a second from my best time, so it was still an improvement. After the 200 free I had two days before the 800, so that worked out well.
6. Having that kind of schedule really worked for you, didn’t it?
Katie: That was a really great thing because I was able to refocus. I did a lot of taper work and built up focus for the 800. I got a center lane after prelims and laid it all out in finals. To make the team was really amazing. It was such a great experience, something I had only dreamed of.
7. And you made the team with a pretty special person from your neck of the woods, didn’t you?
Katie: I did, Kate Ziegler, who grew up in Virginia and is a big part of Potomac Valley swimming tradition and history. I grew up watching her at every meet. I remember watching her break the American record at one of our meets here, at George Mason. She’s just an incredible person. I would always go up with my mom to get a picture and her autograph. It was really amazing that we both made the team. That was the first time. I remember saying something to her like, “Valley! Representing!” right after I realized we had both made it. She’s been a great person for distance swimming and USA Swimming. She’s a great person to be on the team with – that was something that made the Olympics very special.
8. How fun was “Call me Maybe”?
Katie: I don’t think anyone knew how big it was going to be. It just started with a couple of people doing it and they took charge. It was a pretty small and quiet thing that became something great that brought the team together.
9. You all were so happy in the video – that was real, wasn’t it?
Katie: We had a lot of fun making it, just doing these little scenes whenever we’d think of something. Russell (Mark of USA Swimming) did a great job editing it. I think we released it the day before Opening Ceremonies to just kind of make people’s heads turn. That really captures the energy the team had and the camaraderie – and it’s something we can all look back on with great emotion and feelings.
10. That team being so close made it so much more meaningful?
Katie: It was my first international team, so I didn’t know what to expect. But everyone was saying how this team was so close, and had been so great at coming together. When they would say that, it was just so neat to be a part of it. Everyone’s unique personalities came out. Everyone let their personality show. That led to us all being really relaxed and I think that transferred to the pool and we swam well.
11. So many of your teammates, including Tyler Clary and Kate, said your training in France was so inspiring to watch – did you get that feeling that people were noticing?
Katie: I wasn’t aware people were watching! I think I was training better than I ever had at that point.
12. You had a pretty neat coach too, didn’t you?
Katie: Jon Urbanchek was coaching the distance group; it was a real honor to have him coach me. He has such a legacy and such a history. So I swam with him in training camp.
13. That was quite a group, wasn’t it?
Katie: We had Chloe (Sutton), Connor Jaeger, Andrew Gemmel, Tyler (Clary) and Matt McLean, so we had a really nice training camp, and we trained really hard. I was definitely swimming faster, because you train hard at training camp since the meet is coming up. The atmosphere was great for fast training, being around a lot of other fast people. I got to watch Nathan (Adrian), Matt (Grevers) and Missy (Franklin) train, and I think watching people like that was inspiring and helped motivate me.
14. Were you worried about your seed for finals in London and did you think you’d medal?
Katie: I just wanted to get through prelims first, since for the 800 there are just prelims and finals. I wanted to get through prelims and have another swim. Swimming in the Olympics is amazing, so you want to have as many swims as possible. I had 36 hours before the final after the prelims. I think I thought I could get a medal, but I didn’t know what the circumstances would be – you can’t control how other people swim. I visualize a lot, and even during the race I never visualized myself getting anything but gold. At the same time, I didn’t really know. But I definitely visualized myself winning, even though (laughs) I didn’t know at the time if it was possible.
15. Your brother Michael is such a great person, and he’s part of your story too, isn’t he?
Katie: Exactly, I started swimming with my brother when he joined a summer team, and since he’s such a big part of my life, I wanted to join, too. We’re best friends. My parents drove us to practice every morning and never complained – they could see the love we have for the sport. They still love that I am enjoying it, and I love that they are involved but they are not pushing me in any way. When I swam in London, I was swimming for my country, my teammates, myself and my coaches, but also for my family and my community.
16. Did your family know you were thinking gold?
Katie: People would ask my family, “Do you think she could win?” and they would say, “Let’s just get through prelims so we can get to see her swim again at the Olympics.” They really just wanted to be able to go to another night at the Olympics and cheer on our team – it was really hard to get tickets. They have been to all my meets since I was little. Having them there was great.
17. How’d you like London and Barcelona?
Katie: London was really nice. It was similar to the experience in Barcelona because I didn’t get that much time to sightsee. Even though I stayed a couple of days after the Games ended in London, I was pretty tired so I just slept. People in London were very, very nice. I waved to my Mom the night (of finals) in the 800 while I was warming up, and one of the ushers saw it, so they asked my parents if they had a child swimming. My Mom said yes, and the ushers asked where they were sitting. My parents pointed way up, so the usher had them come down and watch from a better view. People like that were just so nice. Also, having it in an English speaking country just makes it a little easier for us on a day-to-day basis getting around, though it’s great to experience a lot of different cultures and learn more about the world.
18. Has the college recruiting rush started yet?
Katie: It hasn’t been that much. Actually I was just talking about it with my parents a little bit, deciding where I want to look. It’ll probably start up more next summer. I am going to go to college and swim at NCAAs – that is definitely the plan. But I am just entering my junior year, so I have time to decide where to visit.
19. You practice other strokes – will we see you do other events?
Katie: Yeah, I do, but no (laughs), I think I’ll stick mainly with freestyle! I train IM and swim a little fly and IM at local meets and things like that. I swam the 200 fly at the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa, so I’ll swim that occasionally, but internationally, I’ll stay with the free.
20. What have the last 18 months or so taught you?
Katie: I think it’s really just shown me how great of a community I have and how much support I have. I’ve learned to enjoy every moment of it and share as much as I can with friends, teammates coaches and the people here in our community. I think also coming off London I received a number of opportunities that I have taken advantage of to give back and meet these amazing people, like the Wounded Warriors at Walter Reed – things like that have been really eye-opening. These opportunities have inspired me to realize it’s important to stay plugged into the lives of the people around me and in this country, and give back when I can, because it helps me see the world in a whole different and new light, and that’s important.