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On precipice of Olympic history, Katie Ledecky building toward an even brighter future

Katie Ledecky is set to make Olympic history on Friday in Rio, and at just 19 years old, there’s little reason to believe it will be the last time she wows the world.

RIO DE JANEIRO — It was the butterfly that sealed it. Jon Ledecky was already having an unusually heady day for an 11-year old: The principal at his Queens elementary school introduced him as a future U.S. President, then he addressed his classmates with a speech, and then he got to walk outside with the priest who gave the blessing. That’s when the yellow butterfly fluttered onto the back of his hand and sat there, beautiful and calm. “Oh, my God,” the priest said. “It’s a sign.”

So, yes, Jon Ledecky had reason to think he was destined for something great. Who’s to say he was wrong? He went on to build a billion-dollar business, get dubbed “merger master” by the Washington Post, give away millions to charity and, last month, at 58, take over as co-owner of the New York Islanders. By most standards he lived up to the promise, and has the markers to prove it.

But what if, all along, none of the above was the point? What if the butterfly was about the day in 1990 that Jon met Mary Gen Hagan and knew she was his brother’s match, and then set out the next weekend to introduce them? She and David ended up talking three and a half hours at a party that night in Old Town Alexandria, Va., and at the end David snatched her card and a day later he called, and their first date was a bad game of tennis. They married two years later. In 1997, they had a baby named Katie.

That’s how we have to think now. Katie Ledecky will swim the 800-meter freestyle final Friday at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and it’s a measure of her historic form that simply no one doubts the result. After winning her qualifying heat Thursday in an Olympic record 8:12.86, Ledecky now owns the top 12 times in the event; the world record she set in January—8:06.68—dwarfs the year’s second-fastest finish by 11 seconds. Translation: She’s about to win her fourth gold medal of these games, and fifth overall, and become just the second woman to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 free at an Olympics. And, at 19 and still the U.S. team’s youngest swimmer, she seems like she’s only getting started.

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“I don’t think she knows her top end yet,” said Team USA coach David Marsh a few hours before Ledecky, stretching her repertoire ever wider, anchored the 4x100 team to a silver medal. “She’s Katie Ledecky. She’s not Superwoman, but she’s pretty darn super.”

It’s not always the case that quality leads to quantity; the Rio washout by Missy Franklin, who won four golds and a bronze at the 2012 London games, is warning that not every star is geared for the long run. But freestyle legend Janet Evans, working with the Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympics, pushed to have Ledecky named to its athletes’ commission, “because I feel she could still be swimming in 2024; that’s how good she is,” Evans says. “She’s so far ahead—stratospherically ahead—that as long as she wants to, she could swim for a very long time.”

If anything, Ledecky has shown a fierce and overabundant want in Rio, shattering her own world record in the 400 by nearly two seconds (“The best swim that’s ever been done,” said Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s coach. “It used to be (Ian) Thorpe’s 400 free; now it’s her 400 free.”), and speculating about once-unthinkable times. “I still believe anything’s possible,” Ledecky said of breaking the eight-minute barrier in the 800. “If I start creeping towards it, then I know I’d make it my goal.”

That the idea engendered no scoffing is its own kind of commentary: Who’s to say she’s wrong? Greatness makes its own rules for what’s possible. Greatness, like light, alters the view of all it touches. Take Ledecky’s family. David, a Yale-trained lawyer, worked for a top-ten firm in D.C. before stopping to guide his daughter’s career. Mary Gen once oversaw 11 departments as an administrator at Georgetown Hospital. Brother Michael just graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. All are highly accomplished, but Ledecky’s performance in Rio—what Marsh calls “off-the-earth kind of stuff”—has had an identity-warping effect. To outsiders they are now Katie’s parents and brother, first and for the foreseeable future, and the distinctive name, “Ledecky”, will be as tightly associated with swim supremacy as “Spitz”, “Biondi” or “Van Dyken.”

The Ledeckys couldn’t be prouder of that fact, or less interested in credit for the anonymous, vital roles they’ve played in Katie’s rise. Michael, who introduced her to the sport, remains her best cheerleader and friend. Ledecky has no agent, no publicist and no driver’s license, so the demands on Mary Gen and Dave—twice-a-day chauffeuring in D.C. traffic to pool and gym, tailoring schedules around her sleep and schedule, fielding calls from media and coaches and USA swimming officials—have been relentless. And soon they will stop. Ledecky will leave in early September for her freshman year at Stanford, and a nest that bustled for two decades with kids and the last four years with the psychic swarm of Olympic prep and hype and noise will go quiet.  

“I’m going to have to go back to work,” Mary Gen said, when the subject came up over lunch at a Rio hotel Thursday. She and David then tried to pin down the day Katie was leaving, Sept. 6 or 7, for the swim team’s training trip to Hawaii before classes start. Mary Gen moved onto the subject of plane reservations. He was still stuck on the date.

“She leaves that early?” David said. He looked down at the table and added, softly, “I’m going to have, like, two weeks with my daughter before she goes.”

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They’ll worry about her, suddenly 3,000 miles away, for all the usual parental reasons and none of the ones involving fame. Ledecky loves winning and recognition when she does, enjoys that a star like Kevin Durant —“Where is Katie?” the NBA star said. “I need to meet her”—would patiently wait for her to finish with drug-testing Tuesday night. But she shows zero interest in celebrity. Stanford coach Greg Meehan sold Ledecky hard on the fact that Palo Alto is a campus where famous students like Chelsea Clinton and Tiger Woods could feel almost like any student, and she barely considered another school.

“Katie hasn’t done anything to pump up the hype—clearly the opposite—and that’s reflective of what she wants,” Michael says. “She’s more excited about the process and the results inside the pool and doesn’t really care what people think about her. She doesn’t feel like she has to perform outside the pool, as a human being, for anybody. She’s just herself and any attention she gets doesn’t change that.”

The other reason is her love of the team dynamic; if Ledecky swimming alone is a shark, snapping, Ledecky in a relay is a dolphin, breaching. “That was so much fun,” she said after her astounding anchor leg—flipping a .89- deficit into a 1.84-second lead—in Wednesday’s 4x200 relay sealed her third Rio gold medal, not to mention the win for teammates Allison Schmitt, Leah Smith and Maya Dirado. “They’re three of my best friends in the sport, and we just had so much fun. We were just smiling the while time—before, during and after.”

“She loved it,” Smith said of Ledecky. “For her individual races she’s down to business, and for the relays she is for sure—because she always throws down—but I think that she just gets so excited to contribute to the team.” And next to the Olympics, nothing feels more communal, more interdependent for a swimmer, than NCAA competition.

“You experience a team like you never have before,” said Smith, a four-time champion at the University of Virginia. “Katie’s going to do really great with it, because there’s so many new challenges that she’s never had to face, like being on all the different relays and being in three different individual events because they really matter for scoring points. She’s going to want to rack up all the points she can for Stanford.”

Despite the millions Ledecky could make by turning professional, there are plenty inside her circle who can see her swimming a full four years in college. If not, they still expect her to be at the Tokyo Olympics in four years, racking up medals—and Jon Ledecky plans to be there. He and David grew up riding the subway to Shea Stadium, lived and died with the ’69 Mets, and he spent much of his adult life trying to buy a major sports team. Now at last he has one, just in time to realize that one of the great athletes of his lifetime was growing up under his nose.   

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“It’s surreal,” he says, “to sit there having known this girl literally since the day she was born and seeing her going off those blocks, doing what she’s doing.” In London, when she was a 15-year old winning her first gold in the 800-meters, Jon was so overwhelmed in the stands that he could only shake his head and scream, “Oh my God, ohmyGodohmyGod!”

He takes no credit. All that Katie is in and out of the pool, Jon says, is due to David and Mary Gen. But he does think back, often, to that first night in 1990.

“I’ve had one or two moments in life where everything has slowed down, and when I met Mary Gen things slowed down,” he says. “It was weird, but nicely weird, and that’s why I was so emphatic that my brother had to meet her. I just had that sign. It was like a bright light shined on her and said, This is your brother’s wife. Dave was not in the mood to go to that party and I literally dragged him.

“Who knows? If you believe in faith—and Katie has this deep belief in faith—then something was going on there. That was the butterfly moment.”

If that sounds too out there, know that Jon told his fix-up story at their long-ago wedding—and doesn’t even know the latest. There’s been speculation about Katie someday expanding her repertoire beyond freestyle, perhaps to individual medley, but for now she has no such plan. On Tuesday someone in a press conference asked Ledecky, for the sake of discussion, to name her next best stroke.

“Butterfly,” she said.

No, time didn’t slow down then. But hearing that was nicely weird.