Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky on June 6 addresses the graduating eighth grade class from Little Flower School in Bethesda, her alma mater.
Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky on June 6 addresses the graduating eighth grade class from Little Flower School in Bethesda, her alma mater.
Since winning the gold medal in the 800-meter women's freestyle swimming race at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Katie Ledecky has returned home to the Washington area, thrown the first pitch at a Nationals game, resumed her schoolwork as a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, and been named the Washington Post's All-Met girls' swimmer of the year.

But she said one of her greatest post-Olympics honors happened on June 6, when she returned to her alma mater, Little Flower School in Bethesda, and served as the surprise speaker for the eighth graders' graduation ceremony. "I was pretty close to this class... I watched them grow up," she said afterward.

Ledecky, who is now 16 and graduated from the Catholic elementary school in 2011, spoke to Little Flower's class of 2013 right after a Mass celebrated for them at their parish church by the pastor, Msgr. Peter Vaghi.

"It seems like just yesterday I was sitting right where you are sitting," last summer's youngest U.S. Olympian said, addressing the 25 graduates lining the first rows of pews - the girls in white mortar boards and gowns, the boys in blue. "I know all of you, and I am so proud to call Little Flower School my school."

Msgr. Vaghi said Ledecky had been chosen as the speaker because of her witness of faith: "You have preached the Gospel without the need for words by your simple and genuine witness in the public square to the place of faith in your life." One month earlier, the Olympic gold medalist had received the John Carroll Society Medal from that lay Catholic group of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Offering the graduating eighth graders her own top-10 list for getting off to a great start in high school, Ledecky joked that even though she is a distance swimmer, she would keep her speech short. Following are her tips, with excerpts from her remarks:

1.) Don't be intimidated just because you are young or new at your school. "There was a British slogan that I heard a lot in London that I think applies to high school homework - 'Keep calm and carry on.' Always do your homework, be prepared for class, and don't let it stress you out."

2.) Pay attention in your classes. Ledecky pointed out how her French class at Little Flower helped her communicate at the training camp held for American swimmers in France, especially when she and her swimmer roommate had an emergency early morning request for Nutella chocolate spread from the hotel front desk.

3.) Find one thing you are really good at, and go for the gold. "As you get older, find your passion and make yourself the best you can be at one thing. For me, this has been swimming freestyle, but it can be anything."

4.) Be a good teammate and classmate. Be gracious in both victory and defeat, and keep your sense of humor. "I will never forget how gracious the bronze medalist and hometown favorite - Rebecca Adlington - was to me after our race in the 800 free at the Olympics. She was the defending Olympic champion and was swimming in her home country, so she had an enormous amount of pressure on her, and while she could have been upset or could have shown her disappointment, she was extremely polite and congratulatory following the race." Ledecky also pointed out how she received a 'high five' and a 'good luck' from Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps in the ready room before her race, and she said that kind of spirit can be translated to one's high school experience, by being supportive and upbeat with classmates.

5.) Don't let setbacks get you down. "In fourth grade I broke my arm playing basketball in gym... I used the broken arm and the bright green cast on my arm as motivation. I got right back in the pool , I put a grocery bag over my arm and since I couldn't use my arm, I took advantage of that time by working on my kicking. My kicking really helps me in the pool today."

6.) Follow the rules, but you don't always have to follow a set plan. "As you may remember, I took the race out in London fairly quickly. Because I tend to swim fast during the first part of the race, this has frequently hurt the back-half of my race. So the plan going into the race at the Olympics was to be a bit conservative up front. Well, I didn't end up doing that. In London after my race was over, the first person I saw was my special coach [Jon Urbanchek] who was assigned to help me just during the Olympics. ... I had just won the Olympic gold medal at age 15, and the first thing Jon said to me after the race was, 'You didn't follow the plan.' He then said, 'But that's okay. You did alright I guess.' And he broke into a big smile."

7.) Don't wait for a friend or somebody to follow. Go out and so something special. "The plan for my race at the Olympics was to stick with the field at the beginning and then make a move right before the halfway point of the race. I dove in, felt great, and found that the rest of the field was not going out fast enough, so I started to control the race myself. So how does this have anything to do with transitioning to high school? Don't wait for somebody to follow or stick with - go out and take the lead in your community, in your activities, in your faith, in our world."

8.) Don't be afraid to stick up for the less fortunate in our community. "Your high schools will provide many service opportunities and encourage you to help others. ...These service opportunities will give you a great chance to get out from behind your classroom desks. There are a lot of people out there who need your help - people who don't know where their next meal is, people with injuries coming back from the war, and people with no home. Get out and help those people."

9.) Continue to keep your religion in your life, and support your Church as you get older. Ledecky pointed out while she was competing in London, she was amazed by the e-mails she got from the Little Flower parish community, with people offering prayerful support. "It reminded me every day of my faith, and I continued to praise and thank God for the opportunity He was providing me," she said, also noting how some college swimmers on the Olympics team organized some meetings to pray and discuss their faith together. "It allowed me to keep my faith central in my life, despite the busy schedule and events in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Always make time for your faith."

10.) Appreciate the people who make a difference. "Please, I urge you, look for heroes and inspiration in other places apart from sports," said Ledecky, who pointed out how inspiring it has been for her to visit wounded warriors at Walter Reed Medical Center this past year, and see how these soldiers who fought for our freedom, some who now have no arms or legs, are persevering, working out hard in the gym every day. "There are heroes in our own community... Don't forget physicians who heal; lawyers, policemen and judges who seek justice; engineers who build things, and most of all, your parents, grandparents and teachers who instill knowledge." She also pointed to two heroes with them that day - their principal, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Rosemaron Rynn, and their pastor, Msgr. Vaghi.

Concluding her remarks, Ledecky encouraged the graduates to "stay close to your faith. I will always appreciate the gift of faith that my parents gave me, and the fact that they sent me to school here."