Back to her roots: How Katie Ledecky became so dominant in the pool
This story appears in the May 30, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
A little girl at the doctor’s office, ear aching. Remember this image when you hear the name Katie Ledecky this summer, and you will hear that name a lot, usually surrounded by phrases like “greatest female athlete alive” or “11 world records” (that number could well change) or “shivers the spines of everyone in the pool.” You may also hear “balanced” and “self-possessed” and enrolling at Stanford,” followed by mention of the 19-year old freestyler’s close family and habit of saying a ready-room Hail Mary.
Those details will be used to humanize one of the otherworldly forces of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. As the world-record holder in the 800- and 400-meter freestyles, the world champion in the 200 free, and a lock for the 4×200 freestyle relay team, Ledecky could become only the third U.S. woman to leave an Olympics with four gold medals. (Amy Van Dyken won four in 1996, and Missy Franklin won four in ‘12.) Such range (Ledecky also owns the world record in the 1,500, which is not raced by women in the Olympics, and the second-fastest U.S. time, 53.75, in the 100 this year) speaks to her vast ambition, but it’s her style—a Michael Phelps-like gallop and crippling pace, even in practice—that leaves teammates and opponents in awe.
“She swims like a guy,” says 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte after a few days of practicing with Ledecky at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in March. “Her stroke, her mentality: She’s so strong in the water. I’ve never seen a female swimmer like that. She gets faster every time she gets in, and her times are becoming good for a guy. She’s beating me now, and I’m, like, ‘What is going on?’”
What is going on? The question is also prompted by Ledecky’s unassuming manner; in the lead-up to her stunning 800 at the 2012 London Games, the then 15-year-old could barely admit, out loud, that she wanted to make the U.S. team. And basic biographical details tend to make things even more confusing.
“She’s a mystery,” says Dave Marsh, coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s team. “I’ve experienced the passion and depth with which Katie trains and races. I’ve gone back and tried to figure out what causes it, because she doesn’t fit the model. She has a wonderful family, has everything, really, that she wants; she’s a beautiful person with seemingly no dark sides. But she has this energy stirring in her, not just at meets but at practice.
“What is she pursuing? Her personal best, but she’s doing it with fury. Where’s the fury coming from? We don’t know, but the stove is running hot.”
The fuel? Ledecky grins and shrugs, but those who know her point to energies she’s only now coming to understand. To a World War II doctor practicing in a Pacific hell. To a cold-war dynamic that, in 1948, sent a Czech statesman hurtling to his death and compelled a father to implore his 20-year-old son to stay in America. To a Jewish cemetery in Prague, and to a Montana lake where, six decades ago, a four-year-old girl nearly drowned. To Michael Jordan’s hands, and to the promise of hot cocoa after a rainstorm.
Ledecky was six years old, in her first summer racing at the Palisades Swim & Tennis Club in Cabin John, Md., when her singular drive surfaced. She wasn’t good enough to compete in “A” meets, always stopping to rest on a lane line during a race. Her goal all summer, in fact, was just to make it to the other end of the pool—25 meters—without stopping, but on the eve of the summer’s last “B” meet, she came down with swimmer’s ear and landed at Spring Valley Pediatrics. She was told she’d have to sit this one out.
The doctor never stood a chance. Katie’s face crumpled; she started bawling. He sent her and her mom off with instructions to stuff the kid’s ears with cotton. She got to wear a swim cap with a big green frog on it. So what if the sky opened up during the meet and the parents got soaked?
“Just miserable,” says her mom, Mary Gen. “But she swims the 25 free, doesn’t stop, and she felt so good about herself. I said, ‘Should we go over to Panera and get a hot chocolate?’ She was so excited.”
Any parent knows that there are moments when a kid will do or say something that smacks neither of Mom nor Dad, that prompts the thought, Where the hell did THAT come from? That was one of Katie’s moments. Another came the following year, when she began writing “Want Times” on a piece of paper, the marks she was aiming for in the eight-and-under races, and keeping it on her bedside table. After a race she’d painstakingly record her actual finishes—slower than her goals at first—then do the math and pencil in the difference.
To see, precisely, how much faster she needed to be. For next time.
Ledecky has a relentlessness that even family can have trouble grasping: She swims as if it’s a matter of rent and food.
This is almost a personal story. I had never met Katie or her parents until recently, yet we had been traveling in the same orbit for years. Our homes lie less than a mile apart in a leafy enclave, flanking the border between northwest Washington and Maryland, though the distinction barely matters. Aswarm with political, legal and NGO muckety-mucks and hypereducated stay-at-homes, the area shares a savage—if superficially casual—competitive vibe. Come March, when Ivy League notifications drop, you can all but feel the collective blood pressure spike.
In the summer the neighborhoods empty some, what with seaside time-shares or the kids off to music camp or coding camp or some throwback camp-camp, but hard cores remain. You can find them making the daily schlep to the string of neighborhood pools, like Palisades, scattered across Montgomery County. Our children swam at Palisades, a few years behind Katie, and my wife served for a time on the board. There are a few mutual friends, but the family paths never crossed.
All of which is to say that Marsh’s puzzlement is justified. Being immersed in the mostly white, mostly privileged slice of the DMV (District-Maryland-Virginia), of overinvolved adults and overscheduled kids, I’ve seen plenty of young Katie Ledeckys. I know it’s not just comfort that kills the drive for athletic greatness. It’s options. It’s perspective—the knowledge that deep down, hitting a baseball or swimming fast is hardly the most common route to success.
On paper Ledecky is like many of the area’s elite, only more so. Her dad, David, is a lawyer by way of Harvard and Yale; her uncle Jon is the Harvard-educated, multimillionaire co-owner of the New York Islanders; and her older brother, Michael, graduates this week from Harvard. She received a premier private education at a girls’ school, Stone Ridge of the Sacred Heart, in Bethesda, Md., played youth soccer, took two years of Irish dance and can bang out a respectable version of "Hey Jude” or "Viva la Vida” on the baby grand piano in the living room. Something of a politics junkie, she’s mulling a major in history, psychology or government in Palo Alto.
And yet, Ledecky has a relentlessness that even family can have trouble grasping: She swims as if it’s a matter of rent and food. After recording, at 15, the second-fastest time in history to win the 800 in London, she spent the next four years taking full ownership of the event, notching nine of the top 10 times in the 800’s history; her current mark of 8:06.68, set in Austin in January, is more than seven seconds faster than No. 2. Her best in the 400 (3:58.37) is better than anyone since 2009, and her 1,500 (15:25.48) is better than anyone since 2013—13.40 seconds better—and she would qualify for next month’s U.S. men’s Olympic trials at both distances. She has never lost a major international race.
Ledecky’s coach, Bruce Gemmell of Nation’s Capital Swim Club, delights in pointing out that this doesn’t make much sense. When he began coaching Ledecky in 2012, he totaled up her athletic gifts—couldn’t do three push-ups, couldn’t run a nine-minute mile—and then installed a twice-weekly, dryland conditioning program. She has since grown two inches to six feet, and she looks as if she could wrestle a steer. But...
“Physically? If you look at the international award stands, she’s usually the shortest one up there,” Gemmell says. “She doesn’t have a long torso and short legs like Michael Phelps. Hands are small, feet are average. At the Olympic Training Center we did an Elite Athlete Health Profile, where we measure how they move, how they jump, lie down, whatever. I got a 60-page report, and about the second sentence in, it says, ‘The findings are remarkably unremarkable.’
“When she shows up to practice, she kind of slogs up the steps with her mesh bag and parka and boots, and you’re like, This is the best female athlete in the world? There’s nothing that says that. Last month we were walking at the training center, and she had some floppy shoes on, scuffing, and I felt like saying, ‘American teenager! Pick up your damn feet when you walk!’”
That “unremarkableness”—a cheery normalcy prevailing amid ego-inflaters like fame, praise and outlandish achievement—is a refrain when people speak of Ledecky. “Out of the water? She’s very, very level-headed,” says Sue Chen, a Nation’s Capital coach who started working with Ledecky last year. “I’ve seen her get pulled out of practice because she wasn’t at her best, and she’s like, ‘Well, tomorrow’s another day.’ But she’ll also text me if I’m away at a swim meet to ask how all the little kids are doing. Nobody does that at 19 years old. She just cares. It’s like it’s her little world, and she’s just a normal person who loves it—and is driven like no other.
“Because she’s scary, man. That face she has on when she’s about to perform? She’s like a bull in a stall, and someone just has to open the door for her to let go. I’ve never seen a woman have that attitude. I feel bad for those people who have to race her. Good Lord.”
Within seconds of leaving the pool, Ledecky usually parks that emotion where no one can see. But then she traveled last August to Russia, a place loaded with family import, for the first time. At the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Ledecky competed in the most stressful—and ultimately triumphant—meet of her life, and did something very unlike her.
Midway through the 1,500-meter final, on her way to slashing another 2.23 seconds off the world record she had set the day before, Ledecky found herself thinking about her dead grandfathers. She had dreamed about them two days before, which was odd because she never dreams during meets, and now they were back in her head as she churned through the water. Then she thought about their widowed wives, and “I dug deep,” she told reporters after the race.
Her parents were stunned that she’d go public with something so personal. After she touched the wall, Ledecky had even looked up and pointed. “I always admired both my grandpas,” she says. “They died when I was fairly young, but I still got a lot of time with them. My Grandpa Hagan loved that we were swimming, and he would read the heat sheets and always wait for the results, even after summer league meets. The thing I remember most—I can still hear him saying it—is whenever we would be on the phone with my grandma, we would hear him yell, Kath-leen! Just this clear voice calling to my grandma to ask something or say, ‘Can I get on the phone too?’ Kath-LEEN!”
Katie’s full first name is Kathleen, too, and just saying it now makes her voice crack. Out in the Hagans’ corner of America, though, everyone knows her as Katie Gen.
She’s just so nonchalant,” Kathleen said. “We’re all trying to figure out where it comes from.
Late one Saturday in April, a final gasp of winter whipped through the oil-boom-and-bust town of Williston, N.D. You could taste the wet in the air, the prospect of what farmers call a “million-dollar rain,” a perfect night to huddle around a desktop in the laundry room of a ranch house sporting an Olympic flag on the pole out front, a half-crazy spaniel yapping inside.
"There she is!" said 90-year-old Kathleen Hagan, who had been waiting all day for this: Another mind-bending—for one who came of age under FDR—chance to watch her granddaughter swim live, streaming on a computer screen from a thousand miles away. And there, indeed, was Katie, walking to the starting blocks for the 800-meter final of the Arena Pro Swim Series in Mesa, Ariz., stepping up and setting her goggles with the heel of her hand.
“I call them her evil eyes,” said Peg Hagan, Katie’s aunt.
Then the swimmers were off, and Ledecky unleashed her usual metronomic punishment. By the 200-meter split, she fell behind her own world-record pace but remained more than three seconds ahead of Denmark’s Lotte Friis, and the last shred of prerace drama had dissolved. “Why do these girls even want to swim against her?” Kathleen said. “There’s no chance they can get first...”
Ledecky finished nearly a pool length ahead, in a relaxed 8:13.20. You could hear the poolside announcer in Mesa call her “the First Lady of Freestyle,” and her postrace interview made it seem like just another practice run.
“She’s just so nonchalant,” Kathleen said. “We’re all trying to figure out where it comes from.”
Who knows how far along a family line temperament travels? It’s not lost on anyone, when they hear that nine-year-old Katie shed no tears when she broke her arm in fourth grade or that she refuses to let on when she’s ill even now, that Edward (Bud) Hagan didn’t talk about his travails, either. Three weeks after going off to war, in 1943—26 years old, a Navy doctor with the First Marine Division—he found himself dodging endless grenades and standing amid dozens of dead Japanese soldiers on Hill 660 at the Battle of Cape Gloucester in New Guinea.
Hagan was also there in the brutal, mostly forgotten 1944 landing on Peleliu (an island in Palau), where 10,000 U.S. servicemen were killed, wounded or went missing, and more than 10,700 of 11,000 Japanese defenders were killed. He saw men splintered by shells and bullets and watched men go insane; the smell of flesh rotting in the tropics stayed with him forever. “All I could do was what I was supposed to do, bury the rest of it as deep as I could,” Hagan later revealed, “and leave it there.”
Awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, eligible to muster out, he volunteered for one last campaign. It turned out to be the Battle of Okinawa. After his work there, he was awarded another Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. (He broke ribs in an explosion but continued to treat the wounded.) “Constantly harassed by enemy fire ... disregarding all personal risks and dangers, he administered skillful medical aid to dying and wounded Marines,” reads the Bronze Star citation. “By his courageous and unselfish devotion to duty, he was responsible for the saving of many lives...”
When the war ended, Hagan was nearly 29. “I looked around me,” he said, taking stock of his time in battle, “and all my friends were dead.” Back in his hometown of Williston, he would be startled by the sound of a car backfiring, smoke too many Lucky Strikes. He married Kathleen, was soon swamped by a country practice in which he was called on to perform all kinds of surgery and make a half-dozen house calls a day. Still, he began working to improve the town. It wasn’t until historians began interviewing Bud in the 1980s that his wife and kids got any sense of his time in the Pacific.
“The family is just that way, and so is North Dakota: real reserved until you get to know ’em,” says Carla Kelly, a writer who interviewed Hagan extensively for an unpublished biography, I Swear by Apollo. “But everybody in the state looks out for each other because if you don’t, you can die in those winters. It’s deeply ingrained: Look out for each other and don’t make it a big deal.”
Every summer Hagan would treat children who had nearly drowned in the nearby Missouri River. By the mid-1950s he was chairman of the parks board and campaigning to build an indoor pool to replace an outdoor one that had, for some reason, been built to a length of only 48.5 yards—well short of Olympic standard. Then, in ’56, the issue became personal. On the family’s annual trip to Montana’s Glacier National Park, Bud’s four-year-old daughter fell off a dock on Lake McDonald, went under and was nearly crushed by a boat before being saved by a ranger.
“All our kids have got to learn how to swim,” he said.
Hagan’s ally and head of the school board, Dr. Dean Strinden, pushed through a rule requiring every Williston elementary student to take twice-weekly swim lessons. By the mid-1960s enough bureaucratic arms had been twisted to allow a combination of park and school funds to build the new pool. “Because he was Ed Hagan, it passed,” Strinden said. “And we hired an architect, and Ed insisted that the pool had to be Olympic-sized.” Why?
“Because,” Strinden said, pausing for the punch line he has been waiting to make for years, “he had kids—and knew he was going to have grandkids!”
The new indoor pool opened in 1969, just in time for the Hagan’s bubbly fourth child, 14-year-old Mary Gen—short for Genevieve—to take advantage of it. By then she was already beating her older brothers, becoming a freestyle force for the Williston Sea Lions. Her dad gave her only one coaching tip: “Take the lead, keep the lead.”
Mary Gen excelled at sprints and always went out fast, swimming first at the College of Great Falls, in Montana, under 1964 Olympic gold medalist Cathy Ferguson, then in the mid-’70s at New Mexico, where she qualified three times for nationals but quickly butted up against her limitations. One UNM workout—30 100s, at a pace 10 seconds slower than those Katie regularly grinds out—left her so wracked with pain that she cried throughout.
“Every set she did in practice, every race Mary Gen swam, she was as tired as anyone could get,” says Rick Klatt, Mary Gen’s coach with the Lobos. “Katie’s at a different level, but her mom was that kind of worker. I can remember her heaving for air after races. There was never any lack of effort in any workout or any meet. She was going after it as hard as she could.”
In 2004, Williston named the aging pool in Bud Hagan’s honor. Katie and Michael visited every summer and at Christmas, training with the locals; Katie was 11 when Bud died in ’08, at 91. By the time Williston unveiled its palatial, $72.5 million recreation center in March 2014, she had become America’s next great swim star. The town also named the new 50-meter Olympic pool for Bud Hagan, and Ledecky flew in from the Olympic Training Center to christen it.
Officials maintained a strict watch to ensure that nobody jumped in before her. Five dozen Hagan relations, including 15 of Katie’s cousins, converged on Williston from all over the country. Eight hundred residents filled the natatorium for the opening ceremony on a Saturday morning in March. Hagan’s oldest son spoke, then Katie. There was one newspaper reporter, no TV cameras, and no competitors when she mounted the block in lane 5 for the oddest 100 of her life.
The crowd went still, at 11:15 a.m. Ledecky bent over, hands next to her feet. “Take your mark,” said a voice on the loudspeaker. Then the horn sounded. She dived in and started churning. Everybody in the stands clapped and some got choked up, and Katie Gen finished the first 50 and flip-turned and headed back hard to finish. It meant as much, she told the reporter, as winning Olympic gold in London because “my grandpa meant a lot to me.” And for those few minutes she had him all to herself.
“Having gone to the Olympics, won at the Olympics, having that connection—I don’t know how to explain it,” Ledecky says. “But that lap was also a special thing that only I had with my grandpa. None of the other cousins got to have that first lap, and it’s not like I’m being obnoxious about that. But it’s a connection I have with him. It’s a cool thing.”
“We still kind of pinch ourselves that Katie’s at this level,” Mary Gen says. But even allowing for some direct genetic flare, she and David figure nurture had to play a role. When Jon joined the Washington Capitals/Wizards ownership group in 1999 (he left in 2001 and bought a share of the Islanders in ‘14), the Ledeckys became fixtures at D.C.’s MCI Center. Caps star Adam Oates always said hello. Slapshot the mascot rubbed her head. Maybe something rubbed off?
David recalls the moment he noticed Katie’s cool. She was two. It was Jan. 19, 2000, the day Michael Jordan was announced as the Wizards’ new president. Jon had invited David and his family to a luxury suite at MCI. So there sat Katie, eating popcorn, directly in front of Jordan.
Jordan, clearly bored, reached over and placed his massive hands over Katie’s eyes. She didn’t move. He pulled them back, and replaced them. Peekaboo! She kept chewing. He did it again, TV cameras caught him, and a clip ended up all over the highlight shows: Everybody in the city was electrified by MJ’s blockbuster arrival except this one little girl. Finally minority owner Ted Leonsis’s son, Zach, leaned over and said to Katie, “Do you know who that is?”
Katie—blank-faced, munching—turns and says, “It’s Michael Jordan.”
The video clip still cracks the Ledeckys up; one April afternoon they broke it out and watched in David’s home office in Bethesda. “I have such short hair that they think I’m a little boy,” Katie says. “They say, ‘Look at him’ ... Michael Jordan covers his...”
The other video the Ledeckys love showing is Katie’s first race at Palisades. It’s June 25, 2003: She dives in, takes a few stokes, pauses on a lane line, then swims a bit farther. David does a post-swim Q&A with his daughter:
“What were you thinking about in the pool?” he says.
“Nothing!” Katie says.
“Just trying to finish, huh?”
“Just trying hard.”
Still, she’s grinning ear to ear, all but vibrating with the joy that parents dream of when presenting all those options to their kids. Mary Gen, a former hospital administrator at Georgetown University Medical Center, only joined Palisades that spring because their neighborhood pool had a seven-year waiting list; when they showed up on the first day, the kids didn’t know anyone. Mary Gen saw a notice for swim team signups. Michael wanted to join. Anything her older brother did, Katie wanted to do, too.
First week? Endless rain. None of the other kids showed, but Michael and Katie splashed about, then went for chocolate-covered donuts at Safeway. That winter there was a stroke-camp run by Curl Burke Swim Team, an early incarnation of Nation’s Capital; Michael left the camp and joined the team, and so did Katie. Then the bug bit: At 10, Michael decided to swim between 1,500 and 2,400 meters daily. Katie wanted to be just like him.
Before long she was beating those Want Times and knocking down the pool’s eight-and-under records. Whenever another activity conflicted with swimming, she chose the water, and soon the rest fell away. The black-line monotony of swim practice appealed to Katie. “I love being in the water,” she says. “I love training. I hate when I have to take a week off. At the end of the season I always take a week or 10 days off or longer, and I really don’t like it. That’s when we go to Palisades the most, and sometimes I have to do laps because I just get way too anxious.”
Ledecky had her national breakout in 2010, 13 years old and blitzing a sectional field in Buffalo filled with college-aged swimmers, winning the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles and the 400 individual medley. Michael was a rising high school junior then, desperate to break through too, but the clock revealed a hard truth: Katie’s 1,500 splits, he realized during a meet at the University of Maryland, were beating his personal bests in the 200, 400 and 800.
Late one August night, he and Katie and their mom rode out to the pool at Palisades. Michael challenged Katie to race a 100 free, and she won easily. “I’m not sure if I was upset that Katie was beating me,” he says, “or had expectations and felt I was not improving. But after that, I started to brag that I had this awesome sister who was going to be swimming for Stone Ridge.”
By then, working with Nation’s Cap coach Yuri Suguiyama, Ledecky was logging almost 40 miles a week. Bud Hagan’s “Take the lead, keep the lead” mentality was baked in, but her low-kick style was, Suguiyama says, “classic female distance swimmer.” He toyed with the thought that Ledecky could attack distance like a man—furious kick, breathing to one side, fully torquing torso, a lope in her stroke. One Wednesday in the summer of 2011, while straining to lower her per-lap stroke count, Ledecky kicked hard. “What you just did!” Suguiyama blurted out. “Try to swim the whole lap like that.”
“It was,” he says, “like a lightbulb went on: There you go. That’s the way we’re going to swim.”
Other women, like four-time Olympic champion Janet Evans, had been similarly aggressive. But Suguiyama chose Phelps’s epic 200 free at the 2007 world championships as the model for Ledecky’s “gallop,” marrying it to her uncanny capacity for work. Jon Urbanchek, a 2012 Olympic coach, knew little about Ledecky when the 15-year old came to the pre-London training camp in Knoxville, Tenn.; then Ledecky began holding her own with the male milers, churning out one 59-second hundred after another. “Holy s---,” Urbanchek said to a colleague. “She’s holding a minute!”
Urbanchek claims no credit for Ledecky’s gold in London, but his protégé, Gemmell, had been one of the guinea pigs for the legendary coach’s training regime at Michigan, and Gemmell introduced it when he replaced Suguiyama at Nation’s Capital. “But my program is designed for college-age men,” Urbanchek says. “Katie’s actually the only female to break into that mold.”
The formula unleashed two world records in Barcelona in 2013, five-gold performances at both the ’14 Pan-Pacific championships and the ’15 world championships, and may yet make Ledecky a sprint force sooner than anyone expected. But it had little to do with her greatest moment yet.
Twenty-nine minutes after completing her world-record victory in the 1,500 at Kazan, Ledecky went back in the pool for the 200-meter semifinal. Nobody had attempted a double of such distances in the sport’s history—not Missy Franklin at the 2012 London Olympics, not Phelps during his golden run at Beijing in ’08. And Ledecky felt awful.
Stretching her legs, she could still feel the lactic acid burning; when she mounted the blocks, her legs started shaking. After 10 strokes, she says her arms felt like “Jell-O,” and by the 100 mark she had faded into seventh: “I’ve never felt so hopeless in a race.” By the 150 she was in sixth and telling herself, Don’t screw this up, Katie, don’t screw this up, don’t screw this up ... Keep in mind, she had already broken two world records in two days.
“You and I would say, ‘That’s it. I tried, it was fun: I’m done,’” Gemmell says. “But that’s just not in her makeup.”
Ledecky put her head down and charged for the final 50, Suguiyama’s masterwork—her gallop—in shambles. “I was just flailing, moving my arms and legs as fast as I could,” Ledecky says.
She reeled in three women and touched the wall, unsure if she had made the final. When the times came up—peekaboo—she had placed sixth. Good enough. It was her Michael Jordan moment: clutch, slightly surreal, more impressive in a way than her win the next day in the 200 final. “I’ve never seen anybody do anything like that,” says longtime coach and USA Swimming team director Frank Busch. “Damn, if she didn’t want it.”
Ledecky had reached a competitive place beyond talent, technique, love of the water or anything learned in Bethesda. What got her there? “I don’t know,” Ledecky says. “It’s hard for me to pinpoint. I don’t know if it’s something that I’ll realize later in life: What motivated me. What drove me.”
Meeting Mary Gen Ledecky is like sticking a finger in a wall socket. She’s one of those high-octane community-glue types, quick to laugh and Williston helpful, the one who puts her hand up to organize the barbecue, rep the swim team, connect whoever needs connecting. If Katie is swimming’s Happy Warrior, there’s no doubt where the happy comes from. But the warrior? The want?
Maybe from the other side. David is quieter and warier than his wife, as apt to be dismayed as delighted by the world, heir to a sensibility bristling with edge. “Bud and Kathleen were rooted in that part of America, had land given to them, and they could be secure in their Catholic faith,” says David’s mother, Berta. “Now you come to Jerry and me, always having to rub against to get where we needed to get.”
Alone Berta, 83, would be formidable, considering the year she spent translating for Albert Einstein at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the fictional stories about Vietnam vets she published in Redbook, the manuscripts she sneaked out of Communist Czechoslovakia. But her husband, she says, was stronger—and far more remote. He had to be.
In March 1948, five months after 20-year-old Jerry—Jaromir—Ledecky left Prague with $5 to study on a Jan Masaryk scholarship at Rutgers, Masaryk—the country’s independent-minded foreign minister—was found dead below his second-story window. The new, Soviet-backed regime pressed for Jaromir to come home. His father, Jaroslav, who was still in Prague, insisted that he stay. He did. Punishment was total: The family optical business in Prague was lost, Soviet soldiers occupied the family home, Jaromir’s brother was sent to work in a mine. Jaromir didn’t see his father again for 17 years.
“It almost killed him,” Berta says. Instead, Jaromir set goals and bulled ahead. He put himself through college, washing dishes at a Howard Johnson’s. He enlisted in the Army and afterward landed a job as an economist in Manhattan. Within two hours of meeting Berta in 1956, he asked her to marry him; when she said no, he did everything he could to win her, even making sure she made it home safely after dates with other men, and he lost 40 pounds. They married at the end of the year. Education and books were everything. He went to NYU at night, earned a master’s and a Ph.D.; his analysis of the apparel industry was written up in The New York Times.
Each week, in their cramped Queens apartment, Jaromir read seven Czech newspapers, but he walled himself off from guilt, regret—even his very nature. “My father was very quiet in the United States: never told jokes, never hugged and kissed people,” says Jon. “I took him back for the first time after Czechoslovakia was free. He gets off the plane and he’s hugging people, making jokes, talking in his native language and lifting kids up. I was, like, That’s my dad? He was homesick."
At the same time, David says, “my father loved America. He loved democracy. He loved everything about capitalism, about striving.”
In 1972 the family moved to a middle-class section of Greenwich, Conn. Berta, who is Jewish, says she faced an anti-Semitism that her husband and sons barely sensed. A bunch of jocks did throw Jon into a gym hamper on his first day at Greenwich High “because he had a thick New York accent and was a go-getter,” David says. “But by the time he was finished, he was basically running the school.” Jaromir found Greenwich irresistible, an emblem of American success. College stickers were tacky until Jon and David got into Harvard; then they appeared on the family Ford Pintos.
Growing up, Katie saw Jaromir at his happiest. He kept an apartment at the Watergate but shuttled often to the Czech Republic to see relatives and friends and oversee the revived family factory. In 2007 the Ledeckys gathered in Prague for Jaromir’s 80th birthday. Berta brought Michael and 10-year-old Katie to a Jewish cemetery and pointed to names of relatives killed in the Holocaust. Jaromir took them to his boyhood home. And when a man took issue with their parking space, the years dropped away: Her grandfather went into a cane-wielding fury. "Really mad," Katie says. "Man, that was funny."
Some of the old bull remained. Heart trouble wore down Jaromir, “but he was very optimistic,” David says. “Pretty much felt he was going to live forever.” In the spring of 2010 Jaromir fell into a coma at Sibley Hospital; three weeks later he was fading fast. With the family about to cut off life support, Mary Gen called a young priest and rushed with 13-year-old Katie to the hospital for the last rites. Katie stood at the foot of the bed. Everyone held hands, tearing up, and the priest began to bestow absolution.
"Then his eyes opened," Katie says, "and he kind of moved."
Oh, my God, Mary Gen thought. It’s a miracle....
"It was classic," Katie says. "You’d almost expect Grandpa Jerry to come out of it like that."
He lived nearly another year. While rehabbing in the hospital, Jaromir began teaching himself Swedish. "Still thought he would never die," says David.
Last year at the 2015 world championships, Katie’s last race—the 800 free final—was scheduled for Aug. 8. It would have been Jaromir’s 88th birthday. The night before, the family talked about all those eights coming together, there in the heart of the old Soviet Union. "Maybe I’ll go 8:08!" Katie said. No woman had ever swum under 8:11.
It turned out that Ledecky can’t do everything she sets her mind to. She finished in 8:07.39.
More than distance runners, who have foliage, dogs or cars to distract them, distance swimmers are forever being asked what they ponder during all that time in the water. Ledecky understands: Revealing that prayers, grandfathers and a snippet of U2’s “Beautiful Day” worm into her head makes it easier for mortals to relate. No one wants to hear that the best mind-set for a swimmer is total emptiness, the sweet “Nothing!” that she figured out as a six-year-old. That’s what made her gold medal debut at the 2012 Olympics four years ago so perfect: Ledecky was, like the famous description of Teddy Roosevelt, “pure act.” Took the lead, kept the lead.
“I blacked out,” she says. “Flipping at the 600 point was like waking up. It was all a blur before that, then I flipped and said to myself, Whoa. And I see the words on the side of the pool, LONDON 2012, and think, I’m at the Olympics. I think I’m winning. Katie, you can swim this last 200 ... I can hold on. I can do this. But I didn’t really believe it until I touched the wall.”
It began a four-year avalanche of medals and records and expectations that now place her smack in the center of U.S. hopes in Rio, the sure thing, heir to Olympics-defining Americans like Mark Spitz, Janet Evans and, yes, Michael Phelps. “She reminds me a lot of what I was like when I was a kid, with the record haul and the domination,” Phelps says. “She’s not afraid. You don’t see that in very many females. Her stroke is a man’s stroke; that’s part of what makes her so special. But she never backs down. She doesn’t let anything stand in her way.”
But Ledecky wants this understood: Success at this summer’s U.S. trials, or in Rio, or anywhere else is not about dominating or making somebody else’s idea of history. Before she set out to win the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle events at worlds last year, she didn’t know that it had never been done. “I always laugh when there’s hype,” Ledecky says, “because I know what I want to accomplish. For other people to say what I should be targeting or what my goals could be? That’s between my coach and me.”
Yet considering her distance supremacy and the recent increase in her stroke tempo, Ledecky’s next Want Time doesn’t figure to be very big. There’s a trick she plays on herself, when needing a boost: Pretend that the men—and they’re always men—training in other lanes are the best women in the world, and beat them. She refuses to name names, but the bet here is that they swim the 100. Her 53.75 doesn’t even crack the world’s top 10 for 2016. It’s the only race she hasn’t conquered.
“I saw her break a lot of guys in practice,” said U.S. freestyler Conor Dwyer after swimming with Ledecky this spring. “If we were doing a 3K threshold, she’d just start beating me every single 100, and slowly but surely you get broken—and your morale goes down quickly when you get broken by a female in practice. I saw a couple of guys get yanked out of workout because they got beat by her.”
Asked about this in Mesa, Ledecky first said that she took no special joy in breaking men. But when told that the men seem to dwell on it—a lot—she paused, grinned and for once allowed a century’s worth of strength and striving and cool fury to surface on dry land. “So what,” she said. “I don’t care. I’m not going to stop.”