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

In a tie, Wendy Holdener puts to rest a remarkable stat in Alpine skiing

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Swiss Wendy Holdener ended one of the most remarkable victory droughts in sports by tying for the win with Swede Anna Swenn Larsson in a World Cup slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Sunday.

Holdener, after 15 second-place finishes and 15 third-place finishes in her career, stood on the top step of a World Cup slalom podium for the first time. She shared it with Swenn Larsson, who had six World Cup slalom podiums before Sunday and also earned her first win.

They beat Austrian Katharina Truppe by .22 of a second combining times from two runs.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Holdener, 29, previously won three World Cups in other disciplines, plus two world championships in the combined and Olympic and world titles in the team event.

“To be tied first when I came into the finish was such a relief,” Holdener said while shoulder to shoulder with Swenn Larsson. “On the end, it’s perfect, because now we can share our first win together.”

Mikaela Shiffrin had the best first-run time but lost her lead midway through the second run and finished fifth. Shiffrin, who won the first two slaloms this season last weekend, was bidding for a 50th World Cup slalom victory and a sixth win in six slaloms in Killington.

“I fought. I think some spots I got a little bit off my timing, but I was pushing, and that’s slalom,” she said before turning her attention to Holdener and Swenn Larsson. “It’s a pretty special day, actually.”

The women’s Alpine skiing World Cup moves next weekend to Lake Louise, Alberta, with two downhills and a super-G.

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Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

Ilia Malinin
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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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