Forget about being old enough to have a beer with dinner (even in England), when Katie Ledecky stands atop the starting block in the 800-meter freestyle at the 2012 London Olympics, the Bethesda, Md., native won’t even be old enough to drive a car.
And if that seems strange, wrap your head around this -- fellow D.C.-area Olympian Karen O’Connor had competed in two Olympics before Ledecky was even born, and is back for a fifth and final shot at Olympic gold in London.
Forty-five minutes on I-495 and 39 years are all that separate the two D.C. locals. To put that in perspective, between the time that O’Connor was born in 1958 and the time Ledecky was born in 1997 there were eight different U.S. presidents, the Yankees won the World Series six times and the U.S. won 1,132 Olympic medals.
The 15-Year-Old Phenom
For most high schoolers, 800 is the number of pages of dreaded summer reading, but for Ledecky the number means a whole lot more.
On June 27 Ledecky became the youngest member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team at just 15 years old. At the Olympic Trials in Omaha, she made both a metaphorical and literal splash. She was the top qualifier in the 800-meter freestyle with a time of 8:19:78, a full two seconds ahead of second place finisher Kate Ziegler, who is also from the D.C. area.
After the win Ledecky admitted that “four years ago I never knew how to qualify for an Olympics Trials. I thought it was this unreal thing.”
One thing is for real: Ledecky is going to the Olympics. After the race Ziegler was quick to pour on the praise, saying, “I can remember being 15 and making my first international team, certainly not the Olympics. But just the experience that she has ahead of her is so exciting, and I’m exciting for her, because I’ve been there and it’s the coolest.”
The 400-meter freestyle was where things got a little bit complicated. Janet Evans previously held the record for the fastest time ever by a 15- or 16-year-old in the event, a record she held for 24 years, but that was before Ledecky came along.
Ledecky posted a 4:05:00 in the event -- enough to break Evans’ record, yet not enough to qualify. The time was only good enough for third place in a field of older girls out of contention for Evans’ record.
“I don’t think the 400 was that much of a disappointment," Ledecky said. "My time was great.”
When the buzzer sounds in London the race will be on for Ledecky. That's 800 meters -- down and back eight times, first one to touch the wall takes the gold.
After the Olympics, Ledecky will return home to Bethesda, and in the fall she is scheduled to go back to being a regular sophomore at Stone Ridge High School. But for now Ledecky is focused on the number 800 -- the distance between her and Olympic gold.
54 and Still Going Strong
Of the 530 Americans going to the Olympics this summer, 302 have made the trip before, and only seven are five-time Olympians. But only Karen O’Connor can lay claim to being the oldest, or “most senior,” as she prefers, member of the U.S. team.
O’Connor grew up on the back of a horse in Massachusetts. When she was 11 years old she got her first horse, Midnight. At 21 years old (in 1979) she began competing internationally. In 2007 she became the first rider ever to use a pony at a top-level international event. Karen and “Teddy” took the bronze in the Rolex Kentucky Event. The next year the duo won gold in both the individual eventing and team eventing competition at the Pan American Games in 2007.
Yet, in her four previous Olympics, O’Connor has only medaled twice -- silver in Atlanta and bronze in Sydney in the team three-day event.
If the “team three-day” doesn’t ring a bell you probably aren’t alone. In an Olympic world filled with the hype of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Dream Teams, equestrian events don’t exactly garner much prime-time coverage. So here’s a brief explanation:
There are six gold medals at stake in London -- individual and team, dressage, show jumping and eventing.
Dressage is a lot like figure skating -- the horse and rider perform a predetermined routine and are judged by five judges over three rounds, highest score wins.
Showjumping consist of, well, jumping. Horse and rider combinations are expected to jump over roughly 15 fences. Penalties are issued if the pole gets knocked down, or the horse refuses to jump over. There is also a penalty for finishing the course too slow. Finish with the fastest time and you win.
The three-day event consists of three main events (which actually take place over four days). The first two days are spent doing a dressage test. Next is the cross-country portion which contains 45 jumps across Greenwich Park. Finally there is a showjumping portion. The top 25 finishers from the four days advance to a final round of jumping to determine the winner.
O’Connor’s Olympic medal collection has every variety except for gold, and now the five-time Olympian is back, for one final shot at the elusive gold.
Moving Up, Moving On
Recently Ledecky has been grabbing national headlines, while O’Connor has remained an Olympic stalwart of the past five games.
Ledecky is going into her first Olympics; O’Connor has announced this will be her last.
And, of course, Ledecky is just 15 and the youngest member of the U.S. squad while O’Connor is 54 and the oldest member.
Call it cliché, call it whatever you want, but for Ledecky and O’Connor, age is really just a number.