“It means so much to me to have their support. I felt it all week in Rio and to see them first thing when I get home, it means so much to me,” 19-year-old Ledecky said of the hometown welcome.
Standing behind her were more than a dozen friends from Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, her alma mater, holding a giant banner that read “Good Luck Olympic Swimmer Katie Ledecky ‘15!”
“It feels great when all the hard work pays off. I set some pretty big goals a couple years ago and I didn’t know if they would be attainable, but I met them right on the nose and that’s the best feeling I think any swimmer could have,” Ledecky said.
Her cheering fans, and other young swimmers around the country, are a source of inspiration for Ledecky.
“I hope to make as much of an impact as I can. We all had our goals in the pool, the U.S. team, but we also had the goals to hopefully inspire other young swimmers and other young kids who were watching on TV, and hopefully we did that,” she said.
Her teammates at Stone Ridge certainly felt the Ledecky impact, they said, and value her levelheadedness and support in the pool.
Her former co-captain Colleen Carey recalled her first race with Ledecky. Ledecky broke a pool record that day, but came up to Carey to tell her that she did a great job, Carey said.
“As much as she is one of the best female athletes in the world, she also is one of the nicest people,” Carey said.
Another teammate spoke of Ledecky’s humbleness and the distinction between two worlds. “School Katie is Katie -- just any other high school girl,“ said Faith Palmer.
But Palmer knows Ledecky is also just the opposite, especially having seen Ledecky come in 11 seconds ahead of the silver medalist in her 800-meter freestyle. “Personally, having been lapped by her twice in the 500-meter freestyle, I can definitely attest to what it feels like being that far behind,” Palmer joked.
Asked what the future holds for Ledecky, she said she’s focused on the short-term. For the next few weeks, she will be getting ready for her first semester at Stanford University with some of her best friends, including fellow Olympian Simone Manuel.
As for now, she’s looking forward to the simpler joys of being home: a home-cooked meal, sleep and her own bed.
Perhaps she will even secure a driver's license. “I still have my learner's permit. It hasn’t been a top priority of mine to get [a license] the last couple years,” she said.
But it’s not just her medals that make Ledecky who she is. “I’m a member of a family, I’m a member of a great school community and I have some really great friends and I think they make me who I am,” Ledecky said.