By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Considering she’s among the best distance swimmers in the world, it’s easy to forget that Katie Ledecky just finished her sophomore year of high school.
Just 15 at the time, she established her prowess last summer at the London Olympics when she dominated a veteran field from start to finish for gold in the 800 freestyle. It was her first international meet.
And even though a year has passed since her historic swim (she came within seconds of setting a new world record and broke Janet Evan’s American mark), Ledecky said she still has trouble digesting all that she has accomplished in such a short amount of time.
She gets her chance to prove last year wasn’t a fluke when she takes the water in four events (400, 800 and 1500 freestyles, 800 freestyle relay) – up from her single event in London – next week at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona. She also qualified to compete in the 200 free but decided to concentrate on her longer, stronger events.
She said she’s definitely ready for the challenge and is excited to return to the world’s swimming stage.
“I’m still the same old Katie as before, but there have been more, new opportunities and more people recognize me, so that’s been great,” Ledecky said. “I felt very comfortable at Nationals (two weeks ago), although I was a little nervous the first day. I became much more comfortable as the meet went on, and I expect to be equally relaxed at Worlds.
“I’m definitely excited to compete again against the best swimmers in the world. I don’t really feel any extra pressure (based on last summer), but I do have personal expectations and goals.”
Easier said than done when you’re still a teenager, but as she has proven again and again, Ledecky is far from your typical 16-year-old.
She said her grounded attitude is founded in her strong familial roots – mom, dad and brother as well as between 30 and 40 extended family members, most of whom gathered in Omaha last summer for an impromptu reunion to see Ledecky make her first Olympic team.
“My mom’s family is largely Midwestern, so everyone met in Omaha, watched and cheered me on and spent some time together,” said Ledecky, who lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area, attending Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., and swimming for the Nation's Capital Swim Club (NCAP) Georgetown Prep site.
“My family is great. My mom swam in college and my brother is largely the reason I got involved with swimming in the first place. I owe them all a lot for what I’ve accomplished.”
Ledecky said she also feeds off of the energy of her U.S. National teammates at big meets – just as she did last year in London.
“I was so young and new, I kind of felt out of place at first, but everyone made me feel so welcome right away. That definitely put me at ease,” Ledecky said. “They make me want to do and be my best. I have so much respect and admiration for what they’ve all done to get where they are. Being a part of something so special motivates me to want to swim well and represent my country.”
A year older and stronger (she upped her dryland program over the last 12 months to twice a week), Ledecky said she feels more explosive and powerful in the water this year – bad news for the rest of the world.
That paid off with her second-place finish in the 200 free at the Phillips 66 National Championships and has made her a stronger threat in the 400 and 800 free relay – which she said she is especially excited about heading into Worlds.
“Being a distance swimmer, you rarely get to compete on relays, but now I get to swim on one, and I can’t wait,” Ledecky said. “Relays are a true form of teamwork because you have to be in sync with one another. I’m really looking forward to that.”
She’s also looking forward to pushing herself and seeing what she can accomplish in Barcelona.
“We have some new faces on this year’s team, some young ones, and I think that will bring a different feel and energy to the team,” said Ledecky, who will only have one day off during the weeklong meet. “I feel very ready for this. It’s something my coach and I planned for at the beginning of the year, and I’ve made it my priority.
“But I don’t feel any pressure to swim up to others’ expectations based on what I accomplished last year. This is a new year with new goals, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what I can do at Worlds.”