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Hometown Hopefuls: Katie Ledecky’s Maryland-rooted path across the country and back

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

If there was ever a time and place to develop the world’s best female swimmer, it was Maryland in the 2000s.

Katie Ledecky joined the Palisades Porpoises of the Montgomery County Swim League with her older brother, Michael, in 2003.

She had plenty of nearby examples of swimming success to fuel her passion.

In 2004, Baltimore’s Michael Phelps won his first eight Olympic medals, six of them gold, in Athens.

In 2006, a 9-year-old Ledecky asked Phelps for an autograph.

Around that time, Ledecky began charting another Maryland-based Olympian, Katie Hoff, and the world’s best distance swimmer, Kate Ziegler, also from the DMV area.

“That really inspired me to try out the distance races,” she said of Hoff and Ziegler. “I was always looking at their times and their splits as I was aging up and getting closer to their times.”

Ledecky recalled that Ziegler, who is 9 years older, was the first Olympian that she ever raced.

At the 2012 Olympic Trials, Ledecky, then a rising sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, and Ziegler, then a world record holder, went one-two in the 800m freestyle.

Ledecky hasn’t lost that event since.

At next week’s world championships, she is favored to win a sixth consecutive world title in the 800m free. Last year, Ledecky became the first swimmer to win five consecutive world titles in an individual event.

Ledecky will likely make more history at worlds in Fukuoka, Japan. She is one individual gold medal shy of Phelps’ record 15 individual world titles. She’ll likely surpass Phelps, given her decade-plus win streaks in the 800m and 1500m frees.

But the real intrigue is in Ledecky’s shortest individual event, the 400m free, which is on the first day of the eight-day meet on Sunday.

It is the most anticipated women’s race of the meet because it includes the three fastest women in history, who also happen to be the last three world record holders: 2022 world champion Ledecky, Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Ariarne Titmus of Australia and 16-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh, the fastest in history.

It’s shaping up to be the first time in 11 years that the last three world record holders in any Olympic program event line up together for a major championship final. Ledecky isn’t getting carried away with the hype.

“It feels pretty similar,” to past 400m frees, she said. “I’m always excited to get the meet started.”

Ledecky, whose first big splash came as the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team in London, will be the third-oldest American woman swimming an individual event at worlds.

Ledecky had a different coach for each of her four Olympic cycles. She moved cross-country after Tokyo, from Stanford to the University of Florida, to join the best U.S. distance swimmers and to be closer to family on the East Coast.

Gators coach Anthony Nesty put a focus on improving Ledecky as an athlete, such as in the weight room and nutritionally.

The early returns are strong. In her first two years with Nesty, she already swam her fastest 200m free relay split (and third-fastest in history), her fourth-fastest 400m free, third-fastest 800m free and her best 1500m free since the start of the pandemic.

“There have been a lot of years where I haven’t [gotten] a world record in certain events, but it took a little time to realize like, hey, my records I’ve set are a really high standard,” said Ledecky, who broke the most recent of her 14 long-course world records in 2018, but still regularly swims times faster than everybody else in history save herself. “Even through all that, I think what I’ve been able to do is recognize the progress that I make in training. I don’t think that a year has gone by where I haven’t felt like I’ve progressed in some way in training.”

At Florida, Ledecky benefits from her primary training partners. For the first time, they’re younger than her. For the first time in several years, they’re men: Olympic 400m free bronze medalist Kieran Smith and Olympic 800m and 1500m free gold medalist Bobby Finke.

“Having her in the lane next to me is kind of frightening because you don’t want to lose,” Finke said in December 2021, adding that Ledecky has beaten him in practice. “You just have to expect to lose sometimes because of how insane she is.”

Ledecky reached the point in her career that she’s sharing teams with teenagers who idolized her.

Such as Tokyo Olympic teammate Phoebe Bacon, who was Ledecky’s “little buddy” partner when Bacon was a pre-kindergartner and Ledecky was a fourth-grader at Little Flower School in Bethesda.

Or Erin Gemmell — the daughter of Ledecky’s club coach in high school — who dressed up as Ledecky for Halloween when she was in third grade.

Ledecky, now 26, is already a year older than any U.S. woman to win individual Olympic swimming gold. By next year’s Olympics, she will be older than any previous Olympic 800m free medalist.

She has no plans of stepping aside anytime soon. The 2028 Los Angeles Games are in play, when Ledecky would be 31, older than all but two U.S. Olympic female swimmers in history.

“I just love the sport too much right now that I can’t wrap my head around being done next year,” she said. “I just started swimming for the fun of it — as a 6-year-old in summer league swimming in the D.C. area — and that’s how it should always be.”

Ledecky begins her campaign at the World Swimming Championships in Fukuoka on Saturday morning with the 400m free prelims. Find the full streaming and TV schedule for swimming worlds here.