Poised for stardom in Rio, Katie Ledecky shies away from spotlight

Katie Ledecky
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NORTH BETHESDA, Md. — When an athlete is poised to become a huge Olympic star, it’s only natural to wonder what might come next.

Hosting “Saturday Night Live,” perhaps? Maybe a reality show?

Not so with Katie Ledecky.

She might be one of the world’s greatest swimmers, but everything else about her seems downright ordinary.

There is zero interest in the spotlight, just an insatiable desire to keep going faster in the pool.

The 19-year-old doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, perfectly content to ride to practices and meets with her parents. She enjoys playing board games; no video games for her. She’s worked with a charity that collects bicycles and ships them to developing countries. She’s a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, despite the generation gap.

Talk about a parent’s dream.

When someone brings up the idea of becoming a big star away from the pool — anyone up for show called “Kickin’ It With the Ledeckys?” — Katie and her father erupt in laughter.

“Yeah, that’ll happen,” the swimmer said, rolling her eyes.

“You’ve got to get to know us a little better,” David Ledecky interjected.

“They can come watch us play a game of Scrabble,” Katie added. “That’s about it.”

There’s nothing ordinary about Ledecky when she dives into the pool. Four years ago, not long after arriving on the international scene, she stunningly captured her first Olympic gold medal with a dominating victory in the 800m freestyle at London.

Since then, she’s basically been unbeatable in a growing repertoire of freestyle events. She captured four golds at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, five at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships, five more at last year’s Worlds in Kazan. She holds the world record in the 400m, 800m and 1500m free (the latter a non-Olympic event) and will be among the favorites in the 200m free at Rio.

Her growing prowess in the 100m free gives her, at the very least, a shot at competing on two relay teams in Brazil, which could set her up for a haul of five gold medals, which no U.S. woman has bagged at a single Olympics.

Only 10 athletes in the history of the Olympics have captured that much gold in a single Games, a list that includes such towering figures as Michael Phelps, Eric Heiden and Paavo Nurmi.

More impressive to those she competes against is her ability to pull off historic times pretty much any time she’s in the water.

Back in 2014, she eclipsed her own world records in both the 800m and 1500m free at a low-level meet in suburban Houston. This past January, she set another mark in the 800m at a grand prix meet in Austin, Texas.

In a sport where swimmers normally taper their training to be at their best only for the biggest competitions, Ledecky has hit a reset button on the way things are done.

“It’s been incredibly inspiring watching her,” said countrywoman Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals in London. “I feel like she’s really re-writing the rules of the sport.”

In suburban Washington, D.C., Ledecky trains each day with coach Bruce Gemmell and the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, a collection of mostly younger swimmers who can only dream of reaching her heights one day.

Over the course of a 2 1/2-hour practice at the Georgetown Preparatory School, an elite boys academy that has turned out famous alumni ranging from actor John Barrymore to former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, she might swim close to 9,500 yards in the 25-yard pool, a monotonous, back-and-forth grind that separates the true champions from those who only think they’re willing to pay the price.

Because there’s no one in her class on the female side, she does most of her head-to-head training against the coach’s son, Andrew Gemmell, who competed in the 1500m free at London and is hoping to qualify for his second Olympics.

Like Franklin, the younger Gemmell realizes he’s in the presence of an otherworldly talent.

“It’s fun being part of that,” he said. “It could be 40 years before we see someone like her again.”

In practice, Gemmell is usually the faster swimmer.

But not always.

“Any guy who thinks that they are going to be faster than Katie all the time is lying to himself,” Gemmell said. “It definitely keeps me honest. There is a little pride sometimes to not want to get beat by a girl. I hope I help her, too. … I don’t know if she would admit it, but I think, yeah, beating the boys is something fun for her. I think she realizes it’s pretty unique, it’s a little extra edge. And the fact of the matter is, not many girls can train with her, so she’s got to be racing with the guys.”

So, what makes Ledecky so special?

It’s not some unique physical characteristics, like Franklin’s huge feet or Phelps’ long torso and imposing wingspan. At around 6 feet tall, Ledecky wouldn’t be called diminutive, like American distance queen Janet Evans, but there’s nothing that really stands out.

“She’s relatively short on a world-class scale,” Bruce Gemmell said during a recent meet in Atlanta. “She’s got small hands. She’s got small feet. She doesn’t have an excessive wingspan. That’s not it.”

David Ledecky points to a family work ethic that was passed down by Katie’s grandparents. Her paternal grandfather was a Czech immigrant who came to the United States in 1947 to build a better life. Her maternal grandfather won a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for his valiant service in the Pacific during World War II; afterward, he returned home to become a doctor in his hometown for some 40 years.

“I don’t know if I would call it a competitive streak in her, but I think there’s a lot of determination,” David Ledecky said. “I always like to give credit to her grandparents. I think all four of her grandparents are pretty special people.”

Katie comes from a family where high achievement is expected. Her father is an attorney. Her mother, Mary Gen Ledecky, was a top college swimmer. Her older brother, Michael, will be graduating from Harvard next month.

In the fall, Katie will head off to Stanford to begin her college life, a transition she delayed a year to prepare for the Olympics, though she did take a couple of classes this past fall at Georgetown — History of China and Comparative Political Systems — just to stay in somewhat of an academic frame of mind. She is still pondering what her major might be, mentioning history and psychology as possibilities.

“Not surprisingly, I get asked to do a lot of talks on her,” her coach said. “When I’m preparing to do the talk, I always say to my wife, half-kiddingly, that I want to say, `She works her ass off and she’s tough as nails. Does anybody have any questions?’ My wife is like, `They probably won’t pay you for an hour’s talk to say that.”‘

Turning serious, Gemmell struggles to find the words to explain Ledecky’s success.

“She has a real desire to get better,” he finally said. “In some ways, I think it’s as simple as that.”

Nothing too flashy, that’s for sure.

Which seems just right for Ledecky. It’s just not her style.

Well, except in the pool.

MORE: Shirley Babashoff bows to Katie Ledecky

U.S. women’s rugby team qualifies for 2024 Paris Olympics as medal contender

Cheta Emba

The U.S. women’s rugby team qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics by clinching a top-four finish in this season’s World Series.

Since rugby was re-added to the Olympics in 2016, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished fifth, sixth, sixth and ninth at the Games.

The U.S. women are having their best season since 2018-19, finishing second or third in all five World Series stops so far and ranking behind only New Zealand and Australia, the winners of the first two Olympic women’s rugby sevens tournaments.

The U.S. also finished fourth at last September’s World Cup.

Three months after the Tokyo Games, Emilie Bydwell was announced as the new U.S. head coach, succeeding Olympic coach Chris Brown.

Soon after, Tokyo Olympic co-captain Abby Gustaitis was cut from the team.

Jaz Gray, who led the team in scoring last season and at the World Cup, missed the last three World Series stops after an injury.

The U.S. men are ranked ninth in this season’s World Series and will likely need to win either a North American Olympic qualifier this summer or a last-chance global qualifier in June 2024 to make it to Paris.

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Oscar Pistorius denied parole, hasn’t served enough time

Oscar Pistorius
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Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius was denied parole Friday and will have to stay in prison for at least another year and four months after it was decided that he had not served the “minimum detention period” required to be released following his murder conviction for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 10 years ago.

The parole board ruled that Pistorius would only be able to apply again in August 2024, South Africa’s Department of Corrections said in a short, two-paragraph statement. It was released soon after a parole hearing at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre prison where Pistorius is being held.

The board cited a new clarification on Pistorius’ sentence that was issued by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal just three days before the hearing, according to the statement. Still, legal experts criticized authorities’ decision to go ahead with the hearing when Pistorius was not eligible.

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, are “relieved” with the decision to keep Pistorius in prison but are not celebrating it, their lawyer told The Associated Press.

“They can’t celebrate because there are no winners in this situation. They lost a daughter and South Africa lost a hero,” lawyer Tania Koen said, referring to the dramatic fall from grace of Pistorius, once a world-famous and highly-admired athlete.

The decision and reasoning to deny parole was a surprise but there has been legal wrangling over when Pistorius should be eligible for parole because of the series of appeals in his case. He was initially convicted of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter, in 2014 but the case went through a number of appeals before Pistorius was finally sentenced to 13 years and five months in prison for murder in 2017.

Serious offenders must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole in South Africa. Pistorius’ lawyers had previously gone to court to argue that he was eligible because he had served the required portion if they also counted periods served in jail from late 2014 following his culpable homicide conviction.

The lawyer handling Pistorius’ parole application did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

June Steenkamp attended Pistorius’ hearing inside the prison complex to oppose his parole. The parents have said they still do not believe Pistorius’ account of their daughter’s killing and wanted him to stay in jail.

Pistorius, who is now 36, has always claimed he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law student, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after mistaking her for a dangerous intruder in his home. He shot four times with his licensed 9 mm pistol through a closed toilet cubicle door in his bathroom, where Steenkamp was, hitting her multiple times. Pistorius claimed he didn’t realize his girlfriend had got out of bed and gone to the bathroom.

The Steenkamps say they still think he is lying and killed her intentionally after a late-night argument.

Lawyer Koen had struck a more critical tone when addressing reporters outside the prison before the hearing, saying the Steenkamps believed Pistorius could not be considered to be rehabilitated “unless he comes clean” over the killing.

“He’s the killer of their daughter. For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said before the hearing.

June Steenkamp had sat grim-faced in the back seat of a car nearby while Koen spoke to reporters outside the prison gates ahead of the hearing. June Steenkamp and Koen were then driven into the prison in a Department of Corrections vehicle. June Steenkamp made her submission to the parole board in a separate room to Pistorius and did not come face-to-face with her daughter’s killer, Koen said.

Barry Steenkamp did not travel for the hearing because of poor health but a family friend read out a statement to the parole board on his behalf, the parents’ lawyer said.

Pistorius was once hailed as an inspirational figure for overcoming the adversity of his disability, before his murder trial and sensational downfall captivated the world.

Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was a baby because of a congenital condition and he walks with prosthetics. He went on to become a double-amputee runner and multiple Paralympic champion who made history by competing against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, running on specially designed carbon-fiber blades.

Pistorius’ conviction eventually led to him being sent to the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison, one of South Africa’s most notorious. He was moved to the Atteridgeville prison in 2016 because that facility is better suited to disabled prisoners.

There have only been glimpses of his life in prison, with reports claiming he had at one point grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking and was unrecognizable from the elite athlete he once was.

He has spent much of his time working in an area of the prison grounds where vegetables are grown, sometimes driving a tractor, and has reportedly been running bible classes for other inmates.

Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told the Pretoria News newspaper before the hearing that his family hoped he would be home soon.

“Deep down, we believe he will be home soon,” Henke Pistorius said, “but until the parole board has spoken the word, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

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