OMAHA — For Michael Phelps, it was winning eight gold medals in one Olympics. For Missy Franklin, it’s about becoming the most decorated female swimmer of all time.
What are Katie Ledecky’s goals?
As expected, Ledecky flirted with her world record en route to winning her first event of the Olympic Swimming Trials on Monday night. She took the 400m freestyle in 3:58.98, the third-fastest time ever. Ledecky owns eight of the nine best 400m frees in history.
“I certainly have goals beyond this meet,” Ledecky, who won five gold medals at the 2015 World Championships, said afterward. “I certainly have goals better than what I did tonight.”
Ledecky keeps the goals secret, but she has them written in some form. On Beilke. What is Beilke?
“You know how some people tape stuff up to mirrors or floors or ceilings to remind themselves?” said her coach, Bruce Gemmell.
It’s kind of like that.
Beilke started in the summer of 2010 or 2011. Ledecky isn’t sure of the exact date. Neither is Yuri Suguiyama, her coach at the time.
But that summer several years ago, Suguiyama wanted Ledecky, then 13 or 14 years old, to start incorporating a pull buoy into her warm-up routine.
Suguiyama didn’t have one handy at the Georgetown Prep pool.
So he dug through the lost and found.
He retrieved a blue-and-white striped pull buoy and handed it to his budding swimmer. It had obviously previously belonged to somebody else. Because a word was written on it.
Ledecky took Beilke to all of her meets. It became a personality, had a life of its own.
“I would sometimes leave Beilke at the pool, and Beilke would be right there for me the next session of the meet, waiting for me,” Ledecky said last fall.
One day, Suguiyama took a Sharpie and wrote on Beilke, “OT12.”
“So every time I would use Beilke at practice or before a meet, I would see on the buoy ‘OT12,’ and I would think, Olympic Trials, that’s the goal,” Ledecky said.
On July 1, 2012, Ledecky qualified for the Olympics by winning the 800m freestyle in Omaha. She would be the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team in London of more than 500 athletes.
And she wrote something new on Beilke.
“OLY12,” Ledecky said. “I had made the Olympic team, and that’s my goal to compete well there.”
In London, Ledecky did Beilke proud. She upset defending Olympic champion and home favorite Rebecca Adlington for gold.
After the Olympics, she decided to retire Beilke. (Suguiyama left for a job at the University of California, and Gemmell stepped in as her coach at Nation’s Capital Swim Club in the D.C. area)
“Beilke was getting a little old,” Ledecky said. “Beilke had just gone to London. It was a big trip. It took a lot out of Beilke.”
Last Suguiyama heard, Beilke held a place of honor on a bookshelf in the Ledecky home.
“With some other mementoes, I’m sure,” he said Monday night.
But that was not the end of Beilke.
Ledecky found a new pull buoy. She named it Beilke 2, and it has traveled around the world. Yes, she has written on it.
“A few things … that remind me of my goals in its own way,” Ledecky said.
You won’t be able to decipher the code unless you’re Gemmell or maybe a close friend or family member — like the 30 or so in green shirts that read “Katie Ledecky Fam Club” with shamrocks in the CenturyLink Center on Monday night.
Ledecky was born on St. Patrick’s Day 1997, and her family is part Irish.
The history that Ledecky can set this summer has been written often in this space.
If she repeats her 2015 Worlds results with four gold medals (minus the 1500m free, which is not on the Olympic program), it will be on a short list of the greatest single Games performances by a U.S. woman.
But it doesn’t sound like Beilke 2 points to that. Ledecky was predictably coy when asked specifically about her goal in the 400m freestyle after Monday night’s victory. A time? A placement?
“It’s kind of a combination of things, but it’s mainly a time,” said Ledecky, who finished third in the 400m free at the 2012 Olympic Trials, where the top two made the London roster. “The time kind of would, hopefully, be the place. I guess that’s the best way to put it.”
Gemmell said Ledecky’s goals in the 400m free are not really related to her world record from 2014.
Maybe that’s because Ledecky is believed to have notes written on Beilke 2 from three years ago. She’s been working toward the goals the majority of this Olympic cycle.
“Beilke’s always there for me,” she said.Follow @nzaccardi