Before she dove off her block in lane three at a race last week, Katie Ledecky clapped three times. The 15-year-old had done the ritual for years, but not in London five months ago, before she won a gold medal. It was too loud, and she didn’t want to disrupt her rhythm.
Now she was doing it again, at a small high school pool in McLean, hoping to lead her team to an Independent School League title.
Above, she could see people in the bleachers rise to their feet, trying to catch a glimpse. Girls selling food to raise money for their prom stopped and rushed into a workout room to peer through windows overlooking the pool. Swimmers wrapped in towels crowded the edge of the deck, many with camera phones pointed at Ledecky. Some of her high school opponents on the blocks just stared.
She was a spectacle, and she set a meet record in the race — the 200-yard individual medley. Afterward, she waited an hour in a corner of the natatorium with her Stone Ridge teammates, laughing and cheering. Then she snuck back to the blocks for the 500 freestyle, where she lapped everyone. And when she was done, she turned around and stood in the water. She lifted her goggles onto her forehead, and rung out her ears. Then she extended her elbows onto the concrete edge of the pool, as if she were relaxing on a couch, and waited for the rest of the field to finish.