Swimmer Katie Ledecky has done it hundreds if not thousands of times. This time, it’s July 29, 2023, she is in Fukuoka, Japan, and she is in lane four for the 800-meter freestyle final. It’s the 26-year-old Bethesda native’s favorite event, one she hasn’t lost since 2010. A win would make her the first swimmer to win a gold medal six times in the same event at the World Aquatics Championships.
Longtime observers—and Bethesda has plenty—know her secret.
“It’s not some God-gifted natural ability; she’s not tremendously talented in any particular way,” says Bruce Gemmell, Ledecky’s coach from Nation’s Capital Swim Club. “The success comes from her heart and her head and her wanting to compete and wanting to get better, and she wants to get better every day. The consistency of that is what sets her apart.”
Swimming has taken Ledecky far from her hometown, where her parents, David and Mary Gen, still reside. She has competed at Olympic Games in London (2012), Rio de Janeiro (2016) and Tokyo (2021), amassing 10 Olympic medals, seven of them gold. The prolific athlete holds the 800-meter and 1500-meter freestyle world records, and 18 of the 20 fastest 1500-meter freestyle times ever.
She wants to keep the streak going. Next up? Paris in 2024 and hopefully Los Angeles in 2028.
“I’m confident that I’m not going to be done in Paris—L.A. 2028 is definitely in the cards at this point,” Ledecky says in a phone call from Gainesville, Florida, where she trains year-round. “L.A. is very appealing. It’s truly exciting that there’s going to be a home Olympic Games—Summer Olympics. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. …I don’t think I could pass that up.”
But for now, she is stepping up on the starting block in Japan and pressing her goggles to her face one more time. It’s the last moment any of her competitors will be anywhere near her.
On the other side of the world, Ledecky has left an indelible mark on Bethesda and the Montgomery County area. From setting the athletic tradition at her alma mater, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, to popularizing a namesake, protein-packed omelet at Ize’s Deli & Bagelry, to visiting countless patients at Children’s National Hospital, the Olympian might travel the globe but says, “Bethesda will always be home for me.”
She still nurtures those relationships.
Ledecky’s swimming career started at the age of 6 at Palisades Swim & Tennis Club in Cabin John. She went on to attend Stone Ridge in Bethesda and would frequent Ize’s in Rockville, grabbing breakfast between early swim practices and high school classes. Her mom would preorder an omelet for her with tomato, cheese and bacon; a bagel; hash browns; and chocolate milk, and pick up the meal on the way to school. The deli eventually renamed her favorite dish “Katie’s Gold Medal Omelet” and newspaper clippings chronicling Ledecky’s successes line the walls.
“She’s like family to us,” says Lee Greenberg, the owner of Ize’s for more than 20 years. “We got to watch Katie grow up and go through her first set of Olympics—it’s been a great ride and an exciting story to watch her grow into the amazing person she is.”
Ledecky says Greenberg and company “are really, really nice, so we always try to stop in and say hello.”
Her perfect day when she’s back in town would include practice with her club team at Nation’s Capital Swim Club at the Georgetown Prep location in North Bethesda, and maybe a visit to the coaches and students at Stone Ridge, Ledecky says. She also prioritizes grabbing lunch with old high school friends and home time with family.
Her mom, Mary Gen Ledecky, adds that her daughter’s other favorite spots include Whole Foods and Ledo’s Pizza on River Road and Millie’s Spring Valley. Over the summer she also visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, “which was a family favorite spot growing up,” says Mary Gen.
Ledecky competed in her first Olympic Games in London while still in high school, winning a gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle at age 15. Across the Atlantic, classmates and teachers attended a watch party on campus.
“You’ve never seen a room explode the way that this room exploded,” says Stone Ridge Head of School Catherine Karrels, describing the crowd the moment Ledecky won.
She graduated from Stone Ridge in 2015, and her coaches credit her rise to swimming fame as one reason the athletic department at the PK-12 school has churned out more extraordinary swimmers, including fellow Olympian Phoebe Bacon (class of 2020) and Erin Gemmell (class of 2023). There is a chance that all three could be swimming for Team USA at the 2024 Olympic Games.
In 2020, Ledecky and Bacon sent Stone Ridge swim coach Bob Walker a photo of the two of them in their Stone Ridge shirts at the Olympics training camp. Walker had it blown up into a life-size cardboard cutout, which the team brought with them to national Catholic championships last year so that Ledecky and Bacon could be seen cheering the team from the pool deck.
“Her influence survives—even in cardboard,” says Stone Ridge assistant coach Paul Boman.
Gemmell, a University of Texas freshman, competed with Ledecky in July at the World Championships, both a part of the U.S. women’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay.
“I actually got to dive off of her—she went first and I went second—that was a really special moment for me,” Ledecky says. “I’ve known Erin since she was 7.”
Gemmell, an 18-year-old from Potomac, hails from a powerhouse swimming family. Her brother, Andrew, swam at the 2012 London Olympics for Team USA, and her father, Bruce, coached women’s swimming for the 2016 Olympics and has coached Ledecky for years. In 2013, 8-year-old Erin dressed up as Ledecky for Halloween.
“My parents and my friends made fun of me one time because someone asked me who my favorite Olympian was and I said Katie instead of my brother,” Gemmell says.
Walker remembers Ledecky as “a competitor who is fierce, and with a smile. She’ll be done with the race and congratulate anybody who is next to her, pat them on the back, tell them they had a good swim—very modest in her victories.”
Upon graduating, Ledecky took a gap year to prepare for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil where she earned four gold medals and one silver and set two world records. She continued swimming while majoring in psychology, with a minor in political science, at Stanford University and graduated in 2021.
When she comes home to Bethesda, Ledecky still enjoys visiting patients at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.—a habit she’s had for years.
“I think it’s one of the first places I’d been to post-London in 2012,” Ledecky says. “I try to go back and visit, especially around the holidays. It’s important to bring good cheer around that time around the hospital to young kids and their families.”
Ledecky signs autographs, makes bedside visits and gives patient-led interviews that are broadcast to every hospital room. She once went to the hospital on the day a long-term patient was being released, just to say goodbye before that person, a swimmer, went home.
“Her commitment to caring and healing is so genuine, authentic and priceless,” says Dr. Kurt Newman, president emeritus at Children’s National, in an email. “As she won more races and medals and became more famous, her routine did not change. She would call when she was in town and ask if she could come over, see a few kids, maybe play bingo with them. It would just totally transform the experience for these kids and also for the doctors and nurses who were caring for them.”
Ledecky’s fan club may have started in Bethesda, but it’s grown over the years, particularly with fellow Olympic athletes, including gold medal gymnast Simone Biles who says in an email that she is a “big fan,” adding “She’s a great athlete but even better person!”
Even her competition has nice things to say:
“Katie Ledecky is an amazing role model,” Summer McIntosh, Canadian Olympic swimmer, world record holder and world champion wrote in an email. “It is truly an honor to stand beside Katie on the blocks and race at the highest level of our sport.”
Ledecky continues to compete in that echelon, training with male distance swimmers at the University of Florida (UF). Twelve-time Olympic swimming medalist Dara Torres visited UF’s pool and watched Ledecky work.
“I had to pick my jaw up off the floor last time I went to UF watching all the kids training—she’s right there with the guys, or beating them,” Torres says.
Ledecky’s UF training partner is two-time Olympic gold medalist Bobby Finke, 23.
“I never want Katie to beat me and Katie doesn’t want me to beat her,” he says, noting that he nervously watched videos of her outswimming her male counterparts when she swam at Stanford. “I’m like, I can’t let that happen!”
It has happened, though, Finke notes. The two are all business in the pool, but since both pro athletes are sponsored by sportswear company TYR, they end up horsing around at photo shoots together.
“We’ll push each other into the pool—there’s a couple videos going around where I push Katie into the pool and Katie gets me back,” Finke says. “I’ll just be standing there for one of the photoshoots and Katie just runs by and pushes me in.”
Back at the 800-meter race in Japan, Ledecky has spent eight minutes and 16 lengths of the pool pulling away from her competition. Even the NBC Sports announcers marvel at her impressive pace and huge lead over what they call “the best 800 field in history.”
As she touches the wall, she has more than four seconds to watch the next swimmer, China’s Li Bingjie, finish. Ledecky’s win breaks a tie with fellow Maryland native Michael Phelps for most golds at the World Championships by earning her 16th individual world title.
“For me, during the race it felt like any other race and then yeah, of course, afterwards there was a little more excitement around that,” she says.
“My grandpa used to tell my mom, ‘Take the lead, keep the lead,’ and my mom has always joked that that’s how I swim my races,” Ledecky says. “I think it’s a good mantra, not just for swimming but for really anything, to not rely on other people to set the pace—to go out and be a leader. Go out there and do your own thing and don’t wait for someone else to do it, and then continue on. That’s what I’ve been doing in my career—continued on. I haven’t looked back since 2012.”
This story appears in the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine.