While Super Bowl MVPs are known for going to Disney World to celebrate, swimmer Katie Ledecky took a road less traveled after winning a gold medal at the London Olympic Games in the summer of 2012.
She visited the White House and threw out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals baseball game, but before all that, she and her mom visited the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters at their convent in Bethesda, Maryland, to thank the women religious who taught her at Little Flower School.
They brought brownies baked by Ledecky’s mom, Mary Gen, and the sisters got to share in their former student’s Olympic glory, peppering her with questions and taking turns trying on her gold medal.
“We had a good time celebrating her accomplishments,” said Sister Rosemaron Rynn, Little Flower’s longtime principal, in an interview with Crux.
When Ledecky – then 15 years old and the youngest member of Team USA – touched the wall in first place in the women’s 800-meters freestyle race, it was one of the biggest surprises of the London Olympics.
But for the sisters at Little Flower, it wasn’t a surprise that she came to visit them afterward, because Ledecky’s life in the pool is marked by hard work, determination and a competitive drive, but her life outside the pool is centered on her Catholic faith and marked by gratitude for the lessons learned at her Catholic elementary and high schools in suburban Washington, D.C., and for the support that her family and those communities have offered her.
Now Ledecky – who turned 19 on St. Patrick’s Day this year – is preparing to swim for Team USA in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro which begin on Aug. 5. She is expected to win gold medals in the women’s 400- and 800-meter freestyle races, in which she currently holds the world records, and she is also favored to win the 200-meter freestyle and the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay race and may become only the third American woman swimmer to win four gold medals at an Olympics.
In a recent email interview with reporter Kelly Seegers of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, Ledecky said, “My Catholic faith is very important to me. It always has been, and it always will be. It is part of who I am… It helps me put things in perspective.”
Ledecky, who graduated from Little Flower School in 2011 and Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, also in Bethesda, four years later, said, “My Catholic schools challenged me, they broadened my perspective… The importance of balance in one’s life is a lesson I have learned, and one that I hope will help me in college and beyond.”
When Ledecky was a Stone Ridge senior, she returned to her parish elementary school to volunteer as a teacher’s aide. Again, that was no surprise to the sisters and lay teachers at Little Flower School.
The woman regarded by many as the world’s greatest distance swimmer, and one of the world’s best female athletes, came back to the Catholic school that she attended for 10 years, from prekindergarten through eighth grade, and helped children with their math problems and graded some of their papers.
“You wouldn’t know she’s an Olympic star. She’s very humble about her accomplishments,” her former principal said. “…She’s an all-around good kid. I can’t call her a kid (anymore). She’s a beautiful young lady.”
After winning Olympic gold, Ledecky credited the support she had received, first from her loving family – her father David is an attorney and her mother is a former associate administrator at Georgetown University Medical Center. Her older brother Michael, whom she regards as her biggest fan, graduated from Harvard this spring.
She began swimming on a community team with him, the Palisade Porpoises, when she was 6 and he was 9, the beginning of her competitive swimming career. Another loyal and loving supporter is her godfather, Jesuit Father Jim Shea, the former provincial of that order’s Maryland Province.
The champion swimmer also gave credit to the prayers and support of her Catholic school communities back home. Three days after winning Olympic gold, the rising sophomore at Stone Ridge arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia and was greeted by about 25 fellow students and the Stone Ridge Gator mascot, who offered her a hero’s and a friend’s welcome.
As Ledecky appeared in the doorway, they greeted her with cheers, and she made a slow, happy run into their arms, sharing a group hug with them.
Three days earlier, Stone Ridge – which is sponsored by the Religious of the Sacred Heart – had hosted a raucous watch party, as 300 students, teachers, administrators and family members cheered and screamed as they watched livestream coverage of Ledecky’s race.
“The energy in the room was explosive,” said Catherine Ronan Karrels, Stone Ridge’s head of school, in an interview with Crux. “It was an exhilarating feeling, with so many people cheering on our student and our country, (with) an enormous sense of pride that she was representing our country and was one of us.”
In an earlier interview, Karrels said, “What I admire most (about Katie) is she has stayed 100 percent a normal student.” The administrator said that Ledecky demonstrated the same discipline to her studies that have marked her swimming career, and after the Rio Olympics, the Stone Ridge honors graduate will attend Stanford University.
At Stone Ridge, Ledecky would walk down the hallways with wet hair in the mornings, after her early swims. Her swimming coach there, Robert Walker, noted that Ledecky was the first one in the pool, and the last to leave.
A co-captain of Stone Ridge’s swim team her senior year, Ledecky led the Gators to a league championship during her high school career, and during those years she broke world records seven times and American records 13 times and was recognized by Swimming World magazine as the World and American Swimmer of the Year.
At Stone Ridge’s last home swimming meet in her senior year, Ledecky cheered on her teammates, and afterward, they playfully pushed her into the pool.
“She’s very blessed physically, but that’s never enough. What makes her special is what she has inside,” said Jason McGhee, Stone Ridge’s athletic director.
During her years at Stone Ridge, Ledecky was the co-leader of the school’s campus ministry program, helping plan school liturgies, retreats and prayer services. She also volunteered serving meals to the homeless at the Shepherd’s Table soup kitchen, visited wounded warriors at the nearby Walter Reed Medical Center, and served with Bikes for the World, which collects bicycles for children and adults in developing countries.
“She’s a person of faith, very committed to serving others,” said Karrels.
Last summer after graduating from Stone Ridge, Ledecky appeared in a promotional video for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, promoting the agency’s Walk with Francis service pledge to honor the pope’s visit that fall to the nation’s capital.
Shortly afterward, she competed in the swimming world championships in Kazan, Russia, winning five gold medals and setting three world records. In that meet, she achieved what has been dubbed the “Ledecky Slam,” sweeping first place in the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500meter freestyle races, an unprecedented accomplishment.
Ledecky is known for praying the Hail Mary in the ready room before leaping off the starting block at her swim races. She said the Hail Mary and other prayers calm her and help her keep focus. In an earlier interview with the Catholic Standard, she noted that praying before races “allows me to spend a few moments connecting with God.”
“Though I am at a huge swimming event with thousands of people watching, it is important for me to take time to make space for God and thank Him. He will always be at the center of my life.”
But it is not just the Hail Marys that power Ledecky to victory. She practices about eight to nine times in the pool every week, with two hours at each session, and she also has two to three dry-land training exercise sessions, each about one hour long.
“The special thing about swimming, is you can see how the work you put into practice pays off in meets,” said Ledecky. As Ledecky arrived at Dulles Airport after winning gold in London, her father reflected on what she had just achieved, and said, “It shows if you work hard, you can make your dreams come true.”
The spring after the 2012 Olympics, Ledecky returned to Little Flower Parish and addressed the school’s graduating eighth graders, encouraging them to “find one thing you are really good at, and go for the gold.”
She encouraged them to look for heroes outside the sports world, to “physicians who heal; lawyers, policemen and judges who seek justice; engineers who build things, and most of all, your parents, grandparents and teachers who instill knowledge.”
Mild-mannered outside the pool, Ledecky is known for swimming with fury, tackling distance swimming with a sprinter’s intensity. Bruce Gemmell, her coach at Nation’s Capital Swim Club, told the Washington Post that Ledecky has “the nerves of an assassin.”
Now Ledecky is prepared to take that drive to Rio, and while she swims alone in her lane, she knows that she never really is alone. Her faith tells her that, and her family, parish and school communities remind her of that with their love and support.
On a recent weekend, Ledecky attended Mass at the Church of the Little Flower. After Mass, her pastor, Monsignor Peter Vaghi, prayed a special blessing over her outside the church, and he told the parishioners nearby, “She’s on her way” to the Olympics, and everyone applauded for her.
The teen who touched the wall first at the London Olympics now hopes to do the same at Rio, and she in turn has touched her parish and school communities back home, with her swimming accomplishments and her faith.
The Little Flower School gym has an Olympic flag proudly displayed that Ledecky gave to the school and autographed. At a wall beside Stone Ridge’s pool, a board displays Ledecky’s name 18 times, for school swimming records she set there.
Karrels told Crux that the Stone Ridge graduate “is so grounded in her faith, and supported by a really loving family and community. She’s an amazing young woman, who happens to swim.”