15-year-old Katie Ledecky did not feel any stress at her first Olympic Games and left with a gold medal

He continued: “One of the greatest things about watching our Olympics is that we are a portrait of what this country is about, people of all walks of life, every background, every race and every faith. It sends a message to the world about what makes America special. This shows the character of this group and how you behaved. This is even more impressive when you think about the obstacles many of you had to overcome not only to succeed at the Olympics, but to get there in the first place.”

And then he mentioned me by name, which was a shock that I still can’t get over.

“Katie Ledecky could swim in London, but she still had to finish her summer reading in high school English classes.”

Everyone laughed. Then he searched the crowd to find me. “Where is Katie? Yes, it is there.

Then, after paying attention to me, Vice President Joe Biden walked up to me and joked, “I bet you finished reading this, right?” It was all shocking for a teenager entering her second year of high school. Fortunately, my classmates and teachers did a great job to ensure that everything returned to normal when we returned to school. I mean, of course, I did the assembly and answered a lot of questions about the Olympics. Students, teachers, anyone could ask whatever they wanted. But then the overwhelming feeling of being part of the world stage faded away. I felt a little overwhelmed at random moments, but I wasn’t really sure why.

I did my best to push myself forward and inhabit my high school universe, until at some point, in the winter of my sophomore year of college, I was hit with the realization that even though I kept telling people that I felt like my life was still the same as before, maybe it really wasn’t.

Whether I like it or not, I have become a public figure. A professional athlete with an international audience. Being an Olympian with that title and profile was a huge change. Like my brother who left home and started college. I was adjusting to the fact that I was suddenly the only child in my home and that my brother Michael, the person who knew me best – and who kept me sane – was elsewhere. At school it wasn’t like I was treated like a different person after London. But in a way I felt like one of them.

When I started at Stone Ridge the year before, I started as a new freshman, not an Olympian; just another student trying to make friends. When I returned from London, Bob Walker, my spirited high school swimming coach, advised me that although I was now a gold medal winner, there were other qualities that made me who I am. Bob, my classmates, teachers, and administrators helped me bridge the gap between an ordinary fifteen-year-old and an Olympic gold medalist.

It’s easy to get stuck in your own head when swimming. After all, you spend most of your time in the water face down, staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool. After returning to Stone Ridge, I was fortunate to be able to return to normal life with my high school friends on the swim team. We were all dedicated swimmers, but we also kept things fun and light. After London, I also tried to combine swimming with volunteering and involvement in school-related projects. I have tried to maintain a connection to my community that goes beyond the pool. By doing more, I filled my time, stayed busy, literally spent more hours with my feet on the ground. I held on to who I had always been, accepting who I was becoming. And every day I reminded myself that, as Coach Bob, Yuri, and my parents often said, I was more than just a swimmer.

An extract from JUST ADD WATER: My Swimming Life. Copyright © 2024 by Katie Ledecky. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.