When the Ledecky family was making travel plans for the summer of 2012, the list of destinations was quickly narrowed to one.
Omaha — the city with one of the world’s finest zoos, countless steakhouses and four Fortune 500 companies — was it.
They weren’t headed west just for sirloins and sharks, though. Daughter Katie qualified for three events in the Swim Trials, so the CenturyLink Center was where they’d be spending most of their time.
Once they’d arrived in Omaha, no one was thinking about a trip to London to watch 15-year-old Katie compete in the 2012 Olympics.
She finished third behind Allison Schmitt and Chloe Sutton in the 400-meter freestyle before placing ninth in the 200 freestyle semifinals.
Then Ledecky surprised everyone, including herself, by winning the 800 freestyle on the next-to-last day of the Trials.
“In 2012 it was kind of unexpected,” Ledecky said. “They were kind of treating Omaha as our Olympics. They didn’t think I was going to go on. That was such a great experience being able to have them all there, getting to celebrate with them afterwards.
“It was kind of a long-shot goal to make the Olympic team. I worked my way up the rankings and made it happen here in Omaha and then in London.”
Ledecky then won the 800 free in London. The expectations permanently changed, and she hasn’t disappointed while morphing into the greatest female distance swimmer in history.
Since London, Ledecky has 18 medals (15 gold, three silver) in world championships, five medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics (four gold, one silver) and world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles.
The 24-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland, is again in Omaha for the 2021 Trials at the CHI Health Center, looking for a bid to the Tokyo Olympics that begin July 24.
Ledecky is the top seed in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyle races, the latter being a first-time event in the Olympics. She is the world-record holder in the three longest races.
“I was really excited about that (the 1,500),” Ledecky said. “It’s going to make my schedule here a little busier here. We do prelims and finals, so that’s another 3,000 meters.”
That will more than double the meters Ledecky raced in winning the other three freestyles at the 2016 Trials. She will likely hit 6,000 meters this week (with semifinal heats in the 200 free), a total that could go as high as 6,300 if she competes in the 100 freestyle.
“That’s something that I’m preparing for,” Ledecky said. “Then if I qualify for all of those other events in the Olympics, it’s a month later. It’s a whole different preparation to handle that kind of racing load because it’s over 6,000 meters of racing, potentially, a month apart.
“I’ve done a meet like that at world championships, but not twice a month apart.“
Ledecky said she doesn’t expect she’ll need to compete this week in the 100 free because of how strong the U.S. team has become in that event.
“I’m entered, (but) my focus is on the other events. If the 100 is there, it’s there. If they need me for a relay, I’ll be there,” she said.
Knowing the venue for these races is also helpful.
“As someone who’s been to two Olympic Trials in Omaha, it’s nice to have the familiarity of just kind of knowing what we can visualize, what we can expect because it is such a high-pressure, high-level meet,” Ledecky said. “It’s nice to kind of have some things you know will be there.
“For athletes who are coming to the Olympic Trials for the first time, they will find that it’s a very welcoming city, a very great setup for fast swimming. It’s always high excitement, and that lends itself to fast swimming. That’s all we can ask for as swimmers and coaches.”
Having the warmup pool steps from the competition pool, isolated from any distractions in the main arena, is another thing Ledecky said swimmers and coaches appreciate.
“There are some pools around the world that have something like that, but nothing as good as we have it here in Omaha,” Ledecky said.
And each trip to Omaha has had its own backstory. Chapter 1: Not planning to make the team, then winning gold at 15.
In 2016, unbeknownst to her, Ledecky’s face was on the outside of the arena. Hanging out downtown for swim — and College World Series fans — to see. Face of the sport at 19.
“I took a selfie in front of it and sent it to my mom and coach,” Ledecky said. “It was so unexpected.”
Ledecky didn’t let the hype go to her head, though she was confident.
“I knew that I was really well prepared for Trials and for what was going to come after that,” Ledecky said. “Nothing was going to derail me. I was on a mission.”
Before 2016, Ledecky made sure to make high school swimming a priority.
“I think what really made it special for me was London was just after my freshman year of high school,” Ledecky said.
Ledecky competed for Stone Ridge all four seasons.
“Any message I would have to high school swimmers is enjoy it and do the best you can to form that bond between your club coach and high school coach and see if you can make the two work,” Ledecky said. “Because I felt like I gained a lot from my high school swimming experience.
“The friendships I made on the teams and what that added to my life just in terms of balance, so I wasn’t just going to school, going to my club team practice. It added another layer of friendships and a social aspect of my life then.”
After her success in Rio, it was time to head to Stanford. She swam for the Cardinal for two seasons, winning eight individual championships to help the team win back-to-back NCAA titles. In 2017, she won the Honda Cup and the collegiate woman athlete of the year.
Ledecky turned pro after the 2018 season.
“It’s something that I thought out very carefully with my coaches and had my coaches’ support,” Ledecky said. “We talked about it very early on about what the process would be, what the best timing would be for me with my goals for 2020 and what would be the best setup for me.
“I really can’t imagine my life or my college experience without having those two years. It’s been a lot of fun to kind of have the best of both those worlds.”
Now after an extra year between Olympiads, Ledecky is ready to try to win four individual golds in Tokyo, and a relay gold or two, as well.
Heading into her third Trials, beginning with prelims Monday in the 400 freestyle, Ledecky said the nerves will still be there, though she’s in a place she knows well. But all the nerves this time will be about racing, not about being the face of the sport.
“Once you get here you just have to put your best effort into each race and see what happens,” Ledecky said. “You can’t control how others are going to swim, what little thing is going to derail you. You just have to stick to your plan and dodge any bullets.
“It’s always Olympic Trials in Omaha, but it’s interesting to kind of have stories leading up to different Trials for me. I love the energy of Omaha.”