Last week at the 90th birthday party for a good friend’s grandfather, her 12-year-old niece – a first-year swimmer – learned that I write for USA Swimming.
She asked me a few questions, and then I asked her who her favorite swimmer is. I half-expected her to say Michael Phelps, Simone Manuel or Lilly King – or possibly Missy Franklin.
But no. Without hesitation, she said Katie Ledecky.
I wasn’t surprised by her answer even though I hadn’t thought of her initially. She’s easily the most dominant swimmer in the world and has been for the past 5-plus years.
The thing about Ledecky is she’s a very unassuming champion. The first time I met her was at Golden Goggles in 2012. She had just won a somewhat unexpected Olympic gold medal a few months earlier in London and was of the freshest faces on the U.S. team.
She stood to the back of the room, away from the fanfare with her brother, Michael. I recognized her, introduced myself and started a conversation. We had spoken on the phone that fall for a story, but this was our first meeting.
I could tell instantly that even though she was just 15, she had the maturity and mentality of a veteran swimmer and person beyond her years. Although at the time I didn’t foresee the amazing, dominant results she would go on to post over the next 5-plus years, I knew she wasn’t your typical giddy teenage girl.
She was and remains a champion through and through. It’s part of her upbringing – her mom, Mary Gen, a former competitive swimmer and coach, and her dad, David, an attorney and former coach.
They instilled in her a sense of responsibility, accountability, determination and perseverance.
Needless to say, she exemplifies those traits in every practice, meet, interview and appearance.
Whether or not she loves all that comes with and is expected of Katie Ledecky the world-class swimmer, she does it with grace and a quiet charisma that draws people to her simply because of who she is.
Back to my friend’s niece. I asked her what she likes about Ledecky. She proceeded to tell me about all of her championships, medals and world records.
Turns out she was more than just fan of Ledecky. She wrote an essay about her for a class in school – and asked me if I could get the essay to her hero and possibly secure an autographed photo for her. I told her I would ask the next time I talked to her, and when I saw this young lady the next week at a wedding reception, she reminded me of her request.
This young lady is one of millions of young girls (and boys) – swimmers and otherwise – who knows Ledecky’s name in a congested world of sports and sports celebrities.
But it’s more than just because she’s the best swimmer and one of the best athletes in the world
She’s also a really grounded person, responsible to herself, her family, her coaches, her fans and her swimming.
While it’s obvious she’s become much more comfortable with her sports celebrity and what that offers and requires – she wouldn’t have gone pro in March if she wasn’t – she’s still mostly a very private person who loves swimming and competing.
She’s willing to accept and embrace the life of a professional athlete to be able to do what she loves.
She’s also becoming more and more visible in the media and recognized by swimmers and non-swimmers for her tremendous ability and subsequent success.
In terms of endorsements, she could end up being the most sought-after athlete leading up to the Tokyo Games. Last month, TYR announced it had agreed to “the most lucrative partnership in the history of the swim industry” with Ledecky.
She has made it clear that endorsements were not a major part of her decision to go pro, but she has to make a living in order to keep training to win gold medals and set world records.
She is also excited about promoting the sport through her outstanding swimming and name. A couple of weeks ago, she worked with USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Tour presented by Phillips 66 to promote swim safety and reduce the risk of childhood drowning.
“I’m excited to have some partnerships down the line with some companies,” Ledecky told USA Today. “And also (to) have some opportunities to help grow the sport, do some things along these lines with the USA Swimming Foundation and hopefully some other organizations down the line.”
While this all might be overwhelming for some young athletes, Ledecky has embraced it and is in position to earn more than the male swimmers in the sport.
She’s also perched to accept the torch from Phelps not only as the most dominant swimmer – male or female – in the sport but also the face of USA Swimming.
It’s a win-win for everyone.
“I think TYR has recognized that excellence has no gender,” Ledecky said in a USA Today article. “I’m motivated to continue to prove that every day. Hopefully it is an inspiration to all people, especially women and girls, to embrace their value, to dream big and to work hard because big things can happen.”