Katie Ledecky answers questions from students at Little Flower School in Bethesda.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Katie Ledecky answers questions from students at Little Flower School in Bethesda.
In between her busy schedule of buying bedding for her dorm, throwing out the first pitch at Nationals Park, and meeting Bruce Springsteen backstage, Olympic gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky made time to return to her two alma maters in the Archdiocese of Washington – Little Flower School and Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda.

She visited the lower and middle school students at Stone Ridge on Aug. 25, Little Flower School on Aug. 31, and the upper school at Stone Ridge on Sept. 2. At each gathering of students, cheers erupted as Ledecky entered the gymnasium wearing her five Olympic medals. Ledecky won gold in the 200-, 400-, and 800-meter freestyle races, gold in the 4x200 freestyle relay, and silver in the 4x100 freestyle relay. She began by thanking the communities for their support during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and followed by opening up the floor for the students to ask her questions.

On Aug. 25, the first question that she was asked was, “How do you swim that fast?” To which Ledecky responded, “A lot of hard work.”

The students proceeded to ask questions about whether the water was cold (she said it was, but they like it that way), what her diet included (she eats pasta before races), and whether she got to meet Al Roker and Michael Phelps’ son, Boomer (yes and yes). Some students had comments, such as, “Your medals are shiny,” or a simple wish of “Congratulations.”

One girl asked Ledecky how it felt to be an inspiration to kids their age.

“It is an honor,” Ledecky responded. “It is something I don’t take lightly. I try to be a good role model.”

Ledecky told the students that her biggest piece of advice was to set big goals.

“When I was your age I never thought I would go to the Olympics,” Ledecky said.

But, she started setting goals at a young age, and all of a sudden when she was 14, her goal was to go to the Olympics. In 2013, she set three more goals for the Rio Olympics: to break a 3:46 in the 400-meter freestyle, to break 8:05 in the 800-meter freestyle, and to win the 200-meter freestyle race. She accomplished all three, which she had once thought of as unrealistic.

“It is a really good feeling to meet your goals,” Ledecky said. “Especially when they are really big goals that you think are out there.”

Catherine Ronan Karrels, the Head of School at Stone Ridge, asked her what she learned from Stone Ridge that has helped her.

“The biggest thing I learned from Stone Ridge is how to help other people,” Ledecky said, and continued to talk about the school’s emphasis on service and how she learned the importance of being there for your friends.

“I know I have friends from Stone Ridge that I’ll have for the rest of my life,” she said.

After speaking with the lower and middle school students on Aug. 25, Ledecky made her way from the Stone Ridge gym to the preschool, where kids came up to her and gave her pieces of paper with marker scribbled on them, telling her that they drew pictures for her.

She asked the kids what their favorite part of the Olympics was, and they all yelled out, “the swimming!” One kid kindly told her, “You’re a good swimmer.” Ledecky said thank you and, “I bet you’re a good swimmer, too!”

One by one, many of the kids proudly told Ledecky about their own accomplishments in the pool, exclaiming things such as “I can dive on the diving board!” and “I’ve taken lots of swimming lessons!” At Little Flower, kids were equally proud of their swimming accomplishments, and one kid told her that he swam in an 11-foot deep pool. Another kid said, “I want to swim in the Olympics.”

“I’ll be cheering for you,” Ledecky responded. “Maybe we’ll even be on the team together.”

When one student asked if he could have a medal, and Ledecky told him, “You’ll have to earn it. Is that a deal?”

Some Little Flower students asked Ledecky why the water in Rio was so green and how many miles per hour she swam. She referred them to their math and science teachers to get those questions answered.

Ledecky concluded the assembly at Little Flower by encouraging the students to “Find something you really love” and “work hard in that thing.”

“We don’t give out those beautiful medals, but you do get a wonderful sense of accomplishment” from working hard at school, said Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Rosemaron Rynn, the principal of Little Flower. She presented Ledecky with a small cardinal figurine, which is the mascot of the school and the color of Stanford University, where Ledecky will soon begin college.

At the assembly with the Stone Ridge Upper School, Ledecky welcomed the new freshmen to Stone Ridge, telling them to “enjoy every moment” because “it goes by fast.”

“I don’t think I could have done the things I did over the past four years without going to Stone Ridge,” she said.

Ledecky gave the girls a picture of what life was like during the Olympics, saying, “I forgot how special the Olympics are until I got to Rio.”

She enjoyed the moments where she got to meet people from all over the world and trade pins or talk over a shared meal in the cafeteria of the Olympic village. She met a Swiss golfer who is going to be her classmate at Stanford, and shared a suite with Lia Neal, another Olympic swimmer who is an alumna of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a school in New York City.

Ledecky said that those experiences are what the Olympics are all about: “Bringing the world together and meeting new people.”

While she enjoyed meeting people from all over the world, some of her favorite memories are of her time with her teammates from the United States. Since the team had to practice staying up late at training camp, they would play board games like Bananagrams and do duets on the piano to pass the time and keep them awake.

Ledecky said her suite of female Olympians were competing with a mens’ suite that included Phelps and Ryan Lochte to see who could win the most medals. It was a friendly competition, since Ledecky said her favorite part of the Olympics was, “watching my teammates do things that they didn’t think were possible.”

Ledecky passed on some words of wisdom about school to students of every age. To the younger students, she told them to “work hard” and “listen to your teachers.” To the older students, she advised them not to spend their free periods watching Netflix, but to use the time wisely to get work done, as she had done to avoid staying up late before early morning swim practices.

At the conclusion of each assembly, Ledecky stood near the exit of the gym to greet the students one by one and let them see the medals that she wore. Some students stopped for autographs, high fives and hugs as well.

During her visit to Little Flower, Ledecky said as she stood on the medal stand, receiving her medals, she thought about all of the people who helped her get there, including people from Little Flower and Stone Ridge. In an interview with the Catholic Standard, Ledecky said the thing she would miss most about this area as she left for Stanford is the people.

“I just am a part of such great communities; Stone Ridge, Little Flower, everybody in Bethesda,” Ledecky said. “But I’ll be back and I’ll get to see everyone every couple months.”

In an e-mail interview with the Catholic Standard before this year’s Olympics, Ledecky said the “faith-filled education” she received at both Stone Ridge and Little Flower “has facilitated my interest in the world and in serving others, and has enriched my life so that it is not solely focused on my swimming and athletics.”

When asked what she had been praying for during the Olympics, Ledecky told the Catholic Standard, “I was just praying to do my very best to represent my country, and I always just use my faith to think, ‘I have been given this gift, and I want to use it to the best of my ability… and hopefully inspire somebody or make an impact of some sort beyond just getting a good time (in my race) or getting a gold medal’.”