It's the most famous picture in swimming, shown countless times in the past four years and bound to be shared countless times in the future. It's a young Katie Ledecky, a gleeful smile on her face, meeting Michael Phelps back in 2006, when Phelps was just an Olympic star, two years from becoming an international superstar and Ledecky was one of dozens of excellent swimmers in her suburban Washington D.C. swim leagues (a summer rec league and winter club team).
At that time, when I was an assistant coach for a pool in the 80-team Montgomery County Swim League – a massive, successful summer swim league in the suburbs of Washington – and my team was in the same division as Ledecky's team twice. Summer swimming is a diversion for all but the green swimmers. For a sports that's far too serious for most of the year, the summer is a welcome respite filled with team spirit, coordinated cheers, scored meets and going out for pizza, en masse, after. Ledecky was great, but not sublime. I saw her swim countless times back then and knew the name – it's hard not to when she's finishing first in each of her events at meets you're trying to win – but back then, she was like a handful of others: Great in the county (she'd sometimes come in second at county-wide meets, sometimes she'd be first) but hardly anything that'd make you think she'd be the best swimmer in the world a decade later. Someone has to finish first, after all. To put it a different way, Ledecky was a top swimmer in a top league, but others were just as good.
And then, like a rocket, she was off. By 10 she became one of the best in the county. By 11 she was setting local records. By 12 she was the best in the D.C. area and was getting national cuts. By 13 she was shattering local records.
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But she didn't swim in U.S. nationals that year, nor in an individual event in 2011, the year she set her first national age-group record. Then, less than one year later, in her first major international meet, she won gold at the 2012 Olympics (after qualifying during her first major national meet). The timeline wouldn't even fit a spec script.
The rise was meteoric. From great local swimmer to world's greatest in about five years. And four years after that, she's one of the best who ever lived.
By the time she's done, you may look at that picture and say, hey, who's the other guy? (Okay, probably not.)
THROWBACK: 9-year-old Katie Ledecky was all smiles while getting Michael Phelps' autograph!