On May 12, 2012, a largely unknown swimmer stepped onto a starting block, flanked by the U.S.’ two fastest 400m freestylers of all time in adjacent lanes.
“This is the interesting name that Rowdy mentioned,” longtime Olympic commentator Ted Robinson said on the Universal Sports broadcast that night, noting his partner and NBC Sports swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines. “Fifteen years old. In fact, she just turned 15.”
The graphic named her: Kathleen Ledecky.
By the end of the weekend, word circulated that the wundkerind preferred “Katie.” The name stuck. It had to. Ledecky, who turned 23 on Tuesday, became the phenom of U.S. swimming, one month before the London Olympic Trials.
“It was definitely a breakthrough meet for me,” Ledecky reflected in 2018. “Kind of my first moment where I could kind of think to myself, yeah, I do have a shot at this.”
In the 400m freestyle, Ledecky nearly ran down Allison Schmitt, who would go on to take silver in the event at the Olympics. Ledecky lost by .39 of a second, taking 3.08 seconds off her personal best.
Ledecky has since chopped another 9.33 seconds, breaking the world record three times and posting the seven fastest times in history. She has lost just three 400m free finals since Charlotte 2012, at the 2012 Olympic Trials and while ill at the 2013 Duel in the Pool and last summer’s world championships.
The swimming world might want to keep an eye on Kathleen Ledecky…the 15 year old gets 2nd to Schmitt in the 400 in 4:05
— Rowdy Gaines (@RowdyGaines) May 12, 2012
On the last day in Charlotte, Ledecky capped the meet in the 800m freestyle. She took 4.29 seconds off her personal best, won by 10.71 seconds and earned more praise from Robinson and Gaines on TV.
“This weekend here in Charlotte is almost like your arrival,” Robinson told Ledecky in a post-race, on-camera interview.
“I don’t know about that,” the Maryland high school freshman replied. “I’m just trying to do as best I can.”
Ledecky won the Olympic 800m free two months later as the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team across all sports. She is undefeated at 800m the last eight years with the 21 fastest times in history.
Ledecky remembers specifics from that 2012 Charlotte meet.
“I was kind of swamped with all these national teamers and Olympians coming up and saying, hey, good job or keep it up,” she said in 2018. “I think [Michael] Phelps was at that meet. Him, Allison, I think Katie Hoff, all of them were at the meet. I think my coach, Yuri [Suguiyama], was also kind of starstruck or had the same experience where a lot of coaches were coming up to him saying similar things, like, hey, this girl’s good. She’s got a shot next month [at trials].”
Ledecky also remembers that, at least for a day or two, the swimming world was introduced to her by another name.
“I like to watch my races back sometimes, especially after surreal races,” she said. “And at that moment, those were definitely surreal moments. We got a kick out of that from Rowdy [calling me Kathleen], and Rowdy gives himself a hard time about it now, and I love it.”
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