After reading the excellent profile of Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky in last week’s The Catholic Standard, I had to watch her race in the women’s 800m freestyle on Friday night. After all, here was the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team – age 15 – swimming a grueling race that required her to cross the length of the 50m pool 16 times. In addition, she’s a teen whose humility is acknowledged by her classmates and teachers at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland – a teen who prays the Hail Mary before each race and enjoys going to Mass every week because it gives her the “chance to reflect and connect with God.”
There’s also the simple fact that Katie is a young woman who was now pursuing her own dreams partially because of the inspiration given to her by past and present champions. When she was six, she approached Michael Phelps for an autograph after his practice session at the University of Maryland. This was prior to the 2004 Olympics, before the entire world got to know who Phelps was. Now here Katie was, on the U.S. team with one of her idols who had just won gold again prior to her race. And the other breakout star of this Olympics so far, Missy Franklin, had also just won gold again prior to Katie’s race. Instead of feeling nervous, Katie said she felt “pumped.” The pressure might have gotten to her, but somehow she blocked it out and stayed focused.
Prior to the race, I didn’t get the impression that NBC announcers Rowdy Gaines or Dan Hicks (or anybody really) expected Katie to win. Gold seemed more likely for British swimmer Rebecca Adlington, a four time Olympian and British legend. But Katie took off like a cannonball at the start of the race and never quit. Gaines and Hicks thought she was going too fast initially, that she’d expend too much energy in the early laps and dwindle by the end. They had a point because that’s certainly happened to a lot of swimmers before.
Katie Ledecky, however, was apparently too young or inexperienced to know how these things are supposed to go. She was in a race and she was going all out to win.
Meanwhile, back at Stone Ridge School, students and teachers had gathered to watch their favorite Olympian compete. As reported by Mike Rosenwald for the Washington Post, “With a few laps left, some girls began crying, waving their hands in front of their faces as if to cool themselves off. Others held little U.S. flags high. Connie Mitchell, in charge of communications for the school, kept putting her hand on her forehead and staring at Catherine Ronan Karrels, the head of school. Mitchell seemed to keep mouthing, ‘Oh my God.’ The tension mounted. Girls stood on their chairs. As Katie pulled away from the pack in the final lap, the cheering was loud enough to shake a church bell. And then she won. Total pandemonium.”
I can understand why. By the time Katie Ledecky finished the 800m, the race wasn’t even close. She was way ahead of everyone, even the more experienced swimmers who were expected to win. In a sincere gesture of class, Rebecca Adlington, who wound up winning the Bronze, told Katie she was “amazing.” And what else could you call her? This wasn’t an expected result. I’m sure Katie wanted to win, but she likely never expected this to happen.
In her post-race interview with Andrea Joyce, Katie explained that she tried to block out much of what was going on around her during the race. She had set some short-term and long-term goals for the race, and stayed focused on those. And she didn’t allow herself to think “I’ve got this” until the 799th meter of the 800 meter race.
From my perspective, Katie looked stunned at what had just happened. Finally, in the medal ceremony, this hard-working, prayerful 15-year-old looked humbled and emotionally overwhelmed – overwhelmed in a good way, an appreciative way. (NBC won’t let me embed the video of the medal ceremony here, but follow this link and watch it. It’s worth your time.)
It was a great ending to an outstanding night for a teenager whose faith asserts a lot of things many people claim are impossible. And yet here was Katie Ledecky reminding us all that the media and experts can’t always predict what will happen when people who don’t know they can’t achieve the impossible are led by faith and heart to achieve it anyway.