Katie Ledecky Discusses Receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom from Joe Biden: 'I Was Speechless'

Nov 5, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Katie Ledecky (USA) smiles while looking at the time clock.
Nov 5, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Katie Ledecky (USA) smiles while looking at the time clock. / The Indianapolis Star-USA TODAY NETWORK
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Anyone scanning the list of Friday's Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients would find the usual parade of senior government officials: 76-year-old former Vice President Al Gore, 80-year-old former Secretary of State John Kerry, and 84-year-old former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, to name just a few.

And then there was swimmer Katie Ledecky, 27, who the nation "watches ... in awe" as a White House release phrased it.

"It was pretty surreal," Ledecky told Sports Illustrated of the honor bestowed upon her Friday by President Joe Biden. "Just listening to all the accomplishments and all the impact that all of these individuals have made on our country was pretty inspiring. I think being young still, it does inspire me to continue to work really hard, both in the pool and out."

Ledecky is believed to be the first swimmer ever to receive the honor. A consensus choice on any list of the greatest American Olympians, the Bethesda, Md., native has won seven Olympic gold medals and three silvers across her decorated career. Many of her greatest races have been comically lopsided, and she has long- and short-course world records in the 800- and 1500-meter freestyles to her name.

The 21-time world champion brought her parents, brother, uncle, former coach, two family friends and the head of her high school to collect her medal—which she said rendered her "speechless."

"I never would've imagined I would receive this recognition," Ledecky said. "It was a thrill to be able to be here. Just a really incredible day meeting some extraordinary people."

Over a decade after bursting onto the scene as a 15-year-old at the London Olympics in 2012, Ledecky has gradually embraced an ambassadorial role in the swimming world. She has a memoir out in June, and appears likely to figure among the seasoned veterans on the American swimming team in Paris this summer.

If a four-medal haul at last year's world championships in Fukuoka is any indication, though, she remains firmly at the top of her game in a sport with famously cruel patterns of aging. Beyond Paris, she's told various outlets she's eyeing the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles as well.

"I want to represent our team well in the pool and also help the younger swimmers coming up on these teams, make sure that they're feeling comfortable and confident. I'm really excited for this summer," Ledecky said. "(I'm) continuing to put in the work. I got my swim in this morning."

Ledecky's fourth Olympics comes amid a watershed year for women's sports. Women's college basketball, professional soccer and professional hockey have all hit cultural milestones over the last year.

That's a testament to the strength of the athletes in those sports, according to Ledecky—and American Olympians have a chance to carry that torch in Paris.

"It's our responsibility to be great ambassadors for our country when we go compete—to show good sportsmanship, to compete with great respect for our competitors and to be leaders in our communities and in our country," Ledecky said. "We know young kids look up to us and we have to be good role models because we want the next generation to do great things, whether that's in athletics or in government or in music or in the arts."

In Fukuoka, Ledecky broke icon and fellow Maryland native Michael Phelps's record for individual world titles. But because she lags behind him in a crucial statistic, she has no plans to rub in the fact she received presidential decoration first to Phelps.

"He still has way more (Olympic) medals than I do," Ledecky said.


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Patrick Andres

PATRICK ANDRES

Patrick Andres has been a Staff Writer on the Breaking & Trending News Team at Sports Illustrated since 2022. Before SI, his work appeared in The Blade, Athlon Sports, Fear the Sword, and Diamond Digest. Patrick has covered everything from zero-attendance Big Ten basketball to a seven-overtime college football game. He is a graduate of Northwestern University.