CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky arrives home to a cheering crowd of family and friends gathered at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 17.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky arrives home to a cheering crowd of family and friends gathered at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 17.
After winning five medals – four gold and one silver – at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, swimming champion Katie Ledecky is taking everything one step at a time, which led her right into the arms of friends waiting to greet her as she walked into the baggage claim of Dulles International Airport after arriving home to the Washington area on Aug. 17.

When the graduate of Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart and Little Flower School in Bethesda entered the baggage claim area, where many current and former Stone Ridge students were waiting to greet her, the crowd cheered and applauded. Her friends ran toward her to give a large group hug and see the five medals that she wore around her neck.

Ledecky left Rio de Janeiro with gold medals in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle races and in the 4x200-meter relay, breaking her own world records in the 400- and 800-meter races. She earned silver in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.

Soon after saying her hellos, Ledecky told members of the press that the next things on her to do list were to eat a home cooked meal, sleep in her own bed, and buy everything else she needs to get for her college dorm.

While she hopes to compete in the Tokyo Olympics in four years, for now, she is just focusing on preparing to leave for Stanford University in the next couple of weeks. When asked if she was going to hang her medals in her college dorm room, Ledecky responded by saying, “I don’t think so.”

Ledecky’s ability to set swimming aside for a few weeks as she prepares for college just like any other incoming freshman is reflective of the humility that so many in the Stone Ridge community admire about her.

“What makes her a really good role model is she is so humble,” said Colleen Carey, a 2015 graduate of Stone Ridge who was a co-captain of the swim team with Ledecky. “She is so grounded not only in her studies but as a person…Lower schoolers can look up to how she has dealt with the fame.”

Catherine Ronan Karrels, the Head of School at Stone Ridge, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Her swimming really doesn’t define her as a person, which is what I think keeps her grounded,” said Karrels, who added, “She is so lovable.”

Karrels’ main hope for Ledecky’s future is “that she can just stay Katie.” While she wants Ledecky to continue to pursue her goals, Karrels said, “I hope when she gets to Stanford she is able to live the life of a normal student.”

So far, being a normal student and pursuing her goals at the same time has worked out well for Ledecky, who met the goals she had set for herself in 2013 during her races in Rio.

“I hit them right on the nose and I think that’s the best feeling any swimmer can have,” Ledecky said, during the press conference being held in the baggage claim.

Kelleigh Haley, a 2016 graduate of Stone Ridge who swam with Ledecky year-round at the Nation’s Capital Swim Club as well as on the team at Stone Ridge, was one of the people eagerly awaiting Katie’s arrival at the airport.

Haley remembers swimming with Ledecky in practice, and while everyone she swam with always worked hard, Haley said, “She is just out of everyone else’s league.” Citing the 11 seconds that Ledecky won the women’s 800-meter freestyle by, Haley added, “She’s in her own race.”

Ledecky worked hard regardless of the circumstances, Haley said. She particularly remembers one time when Ledecky got her wisdom teeth out, and was back in the pool just a few days later. But Ledecky’s hard work and success never stopped her from looking out for her teammates.

“She really wants to calm you down and wants you to have your best race, regardless of if it is an Olympic race or a high school race,” Haley said.

The crowd of supporters from Stone Ridge were wearing their “Ledecky Team USA” T-shirts, holding a large banner, and even had a large cut-out of Ledecky’s head. The excitement was palpable as they chanted “Katie! Katie!”

“It is very hard not to burst with pride,” said Paul Boman, an assistant swim coach and theology teacher at Stone Ridge. “It can’t happen to a nicer, more deserving, better person,” he added.

The affection was mutual. Ledecky said the support of the community “means so much to me,” and that she felt it all week while she was in Rio.

“To have them here and to celebrate this with them right away is great,” Ledecky said.

Ledecky is looking forward to beginning her new chapter at Stanford, saying she is excited to swim on the team there and to be going to school with some of her best friends. But as she travels to California, she will take a little bit of home with her. She said her friends, family, and school community “make me who I am.”

In an email interview with the Catholic Standard before this summer’s Olympics, Ledecky – who is known for saying the Hail Mary or other prayers before each race – said her Catholic faith gives her strength and helps her keep balance in her life. “My Catholic faith is very important to me. It always has been, and it always will be,” said the Olympic champion, who is a parishioner at the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda. “It is part of who I am, and I feel comfortable practicing my faith. It helps me put things in perspective.”