In the spring of 2020, as couch-laden Americans lapped up the epic Michael Jordan 10-part documentary “The Last Dance,” Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky put her own stamp on the Jordan fever.
She tweeted out an incredible video of Jordan playing peek-a-boo with her as a toddler as they sit in the owner’s box of the Washington Capitals, which her uncle Jon Ledecky co-owned until 2001.
The sweet video shows the NBA great, seated behind her, reaching his hands in front of her eyes. Ledecky sits there perfectly still, eating her popcorn without flinching.
“We’ve had that family video for years,” Ledecky, 24, told The Post. “It’s such a neat video so I posted it around the time of the series.”
With sports grounded at the time, it was 35 seconds of much-needed levity: a visual record of a GOAT tenderly transferring his powers to a future GOAT.
The tightknit Ledecky clan, however, has another takeaway. There’s family consensus that the video showcases an early trait possessed by the five-time Olympic gold medalist that would later serve her as she emerged as a world-class swimmer: nerves of steel.
“My family always laughs at the fact that I’ve always been relaxed in those environments, kind of … not fazed by anything,” she said.
Her uncle Jon, now a co-owner of the New York Islanders, added of the video: “The fact that she turns to Zach [Capitals co-owner Ted Leonsis’ son] and he’s cracking up and says ‘Do you know who that is?’ [and] without even moving she says, ‘Yeah, Michael Jordan.’
“That’s who she is. She is in the moment.”
Her moment has arrived once again — albeit a year later thanks to COVID-19. (The Tokyo games kick off on July 23.) The Bethesda, Maryland, native burst onto the scene as an unknown 15-year-old in the London Olympics, taking gold in the 800-meter freestyle and foreshadowing a decade of domination in the sport. In Rio, she was still the youngest team member at 19. There she won four more gold medals, smashed the 800-meter freestyle world record and cemented her legacy as the greatest ever female swimmer.
“Katie does not have all the tools that some others have when it comes to technique,” Rowdy Gaines, an NBC swimming analyst who won three gold medals at the Los Angeles 1984 games, told The Post. “What she does have is an incredible feel for the water, from her fingertips to her elbow, and uses that as a paddle, which others cannot tap into. In other words, she was built to be one with the water where others are adapting to be in the water.”
Now, she’s returning to the world stage, not as a young phenom but as a 24-year-old veteran.
In the five years since the Rio games, she moved across the country and earned a psychology degree from Stanford. And then there was the pandemic, which tested her trademark unflappability when she found herself training in a stranger’s backyard pool.
“Of course all of the facilities shut down, so everyone was searching for water space,” said Ledecky. At the time, the Olympics were still scheduled to go on, and one of her Stanford coaches reached out to friend Tod Spieker, a former All-American swimmer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who lived in nearby Menlo Park. Spieker opened up his 25-yard backyard pool, which was equipped with two lanes, to both Ledecky and her Team USA and Stanford teammate Simone Manuel.
“There was no way in hell I was going to deny these inspiring Olympians and gold medalists to train when I had a pool sitting there,” Spieker told The Post.
“We thought it was going to be a very temporary thing, maybe a couple of days. We ended up staying for three months,” said Ledecky. As the pair completed their daily workouts, Spieker’s three grandkids, Ben, 8, Delaney, 7, and Beau, 5, rode their bikes in the yard, cheering on the athletes and buoying everyone’s spirits as they weathered life in lockdown.
“[The kids] really lightened the mood for us in such a tough time when we weren’t training normally,” she added. Spieker and his grandkids watched the trials together, rooting on their new friends.
“It was the feel-good moment of the pandemic,” Spieker said of hosting the pair.
But when the country hung its “Open” sign back up, Ledecky dove into her usual routine, which has remained grueling by even elite athlete standards. In every practice, she aims to “fail spectacularly.”
“I have high expectations of myself. I treat every practice like competition. Sometimes I start off with a pace that is too fast to maintain throughout practice. But it’s OK if I fall off. At the end of the week, if you are completely depleted, that’s what I am striving for.”
Her recipe for failure has yielded enormous success. At the trials two weeks ago in Omaha, Nebraska, she won the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles, bringing her total trial wins to eight, which is more than any other female swimmer.
But the trials weren’t just a showcase for Ledecky.
It was a reunion for her family, who hadn’t been in the same room together since before the pandemic. Initially her parents, David and Mary Gen, and her brother, Michael, cautiously kept their distance, waving to her from the stands. But after she sealed her Olympic berth by winning the 400-meter freestyle, the four broke their physical fast, meeting in a hotel room.
“After the finals of the 400 we were able to get a group hug. It was very emotional and a relief we had gotten to that point. It was very special,” Mary Gen Ledecky told The Post, adding that they indulged in another pastime: “We were able to watch some hockey games together.”
At the time, the Islanders were battling Tampa to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, and her uncle Jon flew to Omaha twice in between his own team’s nail-biters.
“I know 20 years from now, Katie’s accomplishments will be one of the greatest moments of my life, so to be able to go there and share in that moment with her and the family is super important,” said Jon.
Though her work ethic is unparalleled, Ledecky, who is 6 feet tall, has an athletic pedigree. Her mother was a nationally ranked college swimmer, and her uncle points out that Ester Ledecká, a Czech downhill skier and Olympic gold medalist, is a distant cousin.
Mary Gen signed up both her children for a summer swim league when they were in elementary school. Home video shows an exhausted 6-year-old Ledecky resting on the lane lines after her very first meet, saying she can’t wait to do it again.
“We don’t take any of this for granted,” said Mary Gen. “We watch different shows on different athletes,” noting that some families will say they knew their kid would be an Olympian or a champion when they were toddlers. The Ledeckys expected her to be competitive but they didn’t quite envision gold-medal glory for their daughter.
“We always said we knew she was going to be an Olympian when she made the Olympic team,” said Mary Gen.
Jon said it’s that humble ethos that permeates his brother’s family and grounds his niece.
“Many athletes, their family will be in awe of them. And the family has kept Katie normal,” said Jon, who recalled a story from his niece’s time at Stanford when she was fresh off winning four gold medals in Rio.
Katie was was paired up with a classmate and they had to interview each other about their summer and share with the class. “All she said was, ‘Katie was swimming this summer,’” said Jon. “Everybody laughed because she didn’t tell the girl she had won four gold medals. That approach to life gets you through the ups and downs.”
Looking back, there were moments that seemed to predict her future greatness as a distance swimmer. As a youngster Ledecky would write down her goals and specific “want” times. Recently her mother found some of those papers from when Katie was about 9. “I went the Potomac Valley Swimming site to see how close she got to them. I pulled up her times from that meet,” she said. “What was interesting to me is that she met or exceeded her times for the longer distance … Was that the road map [she was going for]?”
Whether her strides were by design, they are not to be denied.
Jon said he has heard through mutual friends that Jordan himself has followed Ledecky’s career and was “delighted” their video was getting airtime. And NBA star and Team USA member Kevin Love recently came to an Islanders game and brought with him a picture of him with the swimmer at the London games.
“He said, ‘I can’t wait to get the updated picture.’ It’s nice that other athletes from other sports recognize her greatness.”
Ledecky has her own social agenda in Tokyo.
The rabid Bruce Springsteen fan, who lately has been powered by his old concerts on YouTube and appropriately his version of “Fire” — hopes to rub elbows with his daughter Jessica, who is an equestrian and was just announced as a member of the Olympic team.
“I met [Bruce Springsteen] right after Rio. He was performing at the Nationals Park in September 2016, and I got to go backstage and meet him. I had my gold medal and he mentioned that his daughter is an equestrian,” she recalled. “Hopefully we get to interact with other athletes from other sports like we normally do.”
But there will be no interacting with family. Japan has banned foreign visitors, meaning friends and family won’t be in the stands to support their offspring.
Jon — who is frequently seen cheering wildly for his niece — has quipped that he’s looking for ways to circumvent the ban.
“I keep kidding everyone that we need to be hired as interns at NBC, but I don’t think my brother is up for that,” said Jon of his brother, who prefers to stay out of the public eye.
After the trials, Mary Gen went to California to help her daughter do laundry and pack for training camp and Tokyo. They filled last-minute Amazon orders, like an electrical converter for Ledecky’s hair dryer. And they savored their together time before another long separation.
The family will likely gather in DC to cheer Ledecky on from 6,700 miles away.
“I will miss them but I am grateful I had two very normal Olympics with them. I feel for the athletes this year where this will be their first and maybe only Olympics, and they won’t have the full experience,” she said.
And when she gets up on those blocks, Ledecky says she’ll draw up a humble reminder of lockdown training and her uncertain road to Tokyo.
“Simone and I joke that we were going to have those cheers from those little [Spieker] kids ringing in our heads this summer,” she said.
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