By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
No doubt most of the hubbub today and this weekend at the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa will surround the return of Michael Phelps to competition after being gone since the end of the 2012 Olympics.
That’s just fine with World Champion and world record holder Katie Ledecky, one of the most unassuming athletes in swimming these days despite being one of the most dominant.
She proved that last summer at the FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, where she won four gold medals and set two world records and one American record in the process. Teammate Missy Franklin won more medals at Worlds – six gold – but it was Ledecky who was selected as Swimming World's World and American
Swimmer of the Year as well as winning the FINA Swimmer of the Year Award in 2013.
This followed her gold-medal win in the 800 freestyle the summer before at the 2012 London Olympics, winning at the tender age of 15.
Now a couple of months removed from the end of her high school swim season, Ledecky has been focusing on long course training and is ready to compete and see where she stands in her times and racing.
“This year has flown by, but I’ve enjoyed all my classes as well as my high school swimming; now, I’m ready for the rest of the year, especially this weekend’s meet and Nationals and hopefully Pan Pacs this summer,” said Ledecky, who finishes her junior year at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Md., June 1, and swims for the Nation's Capital Swim Club (NCAP) Georgetown Prep site.
“I feel like I’m starting to hit my stride, but I’m not expecting to swim best times in Mesa. I’m just excited to see where I am in my training and where I still can make changes and improvements.”
Despite her world swimming success, Ledecky said her life has remained relatively unchanged, particularly at school and in her hometown near Washington, D.C.
And while she has been able to continue to live her life largely absent from the trappings of swimming celebrity, she said her success has also allowed her some opportunities she might otherwise not have, namely participating in community events and using her name to support and visit wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
She also returned to her family roots in Williston, N.D., this past March to swim the first lap in a 50 meter community recreation pool named in honor of her maternal grandfather, Dr. Edward J. Hagan.
“That was a true honor for me, something I will never forget and something that means as much if not more to me than the medals and records,” Ledecky said. “We had a lot of family – aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., -- there to commemorate the pool in my grandfather’s honor, and that was really special for me.
“I have acknowledged that my life is different than before, but I’m grateful to the people around me – my parents, teachers, classmates, friends, etc. – for really making life generally normal for me and treating me the same as before. That’s helped me stay grounded and unchanged by everything that has happened and continues to happen.”
And while she’s experienced a tremendous amount of success over the past couple years, she admits she’s also had a couple of disappointments, most recently at last December’s Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool in Glasgow, Scotland.
A day after arriving for competition against some of the best swimmers in Europe, she contracted a respiratory illness, which negatively affected her during her races. She said she struggled quite a bit the first day when she competed in the 400 freestyle – one of her best events – and finished a disappointing sixth, well off of her American record time and normal result. Her illness also prevented her from swimming the 800 freestyle, in which she is the world record holder.
But by the time she competed in her next event – the 200 free on the second day – she was feeling better and finished second to score vital points to help push the United States to a one-point team victory.
“I really wanted to help the team, and I felt really badly that I was sick and unable to swim my best,” said Ledecky, who said she felt fine before leaving for Scotland but was affected within 24 hours of arriving with the illness. “It was fantastic the way the team came together after being behind in overall points to win in such a close finish.
“We have such a great family of teammates and coaches in the United States. We swim for ourselves, but it’s such an honor to be part of something bigger than just me. It’s an honor I’ve definitely been enjoying for the past couple of years.”
With her junior year coming to a close, Ledecky is already looking forward to her senior year and is starting the process of looking at and visiting colleges and swim programs.
Keeping her visits and plans close to her vest, she said she does intend to go to college and swim collegiately, but with her senior year of high school ending a year before the 2016 Olympic Trials and the Rio Olympics, she said she is considering delaying the start of her collegiate career until after the Games are over.
“My coach and I are discussing the possibilities, but right now, I’m leaning more toward concentrating on training and competing in 2015 and 2016 to be in the best racing shape for Swim Trials and then going to college after that,” Ledecky said. “It’s a decision I don’t have to make right now, but it’s something we’re thinking about and discussing.”
In the meantime, Ledecky said she is just happy swimming and seeing how much further she can push herself and how much farther she can take her swimming.
“I’m excited to swim my usual events in Mesa, but I’m also swimming the 100 freestyle to test my sprinting,” Ledecky said. “There’s no pressure there. It’s just for me, and that’s something I want to maintain throughout my career. I swim for me, and that helps keep any outside pressure to perform or win away from me. It keeps swimming fresh and fun.”
Watch the live webcast of the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa with prelims at 10 a.m. MT and finals at 6 p.m. MT.