U.S. President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Olympic champion swimmer Katie Ledecky, a Catholic, during a ceremony at the White House in Washington May 3, 2024. OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters

Catholic Olympic champion swimmer Katie Ledecky awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

By  Maureen Boyle, OSV News
  • May 6, 2024

Adding another distinguished medal to her already sizable collection, Katie Ledecky - the most decorated woman in swimming history - was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 3 in a White House ceremony.

A native of the Washington area and a parishioner of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, Ledecky received the nation's highest civilian honor, along with 18 other Americans who have "made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors," according to a White House statement.

Ledecky, 27, is a three-time U.S. Olympic swimmer, a seven-time Olympic gold medalist, a 21-time world champion and a 16-time world-record breaker in her sport.

"Thank you, Mr. President and everyone at the White House today for this honor and an incredibly special day!" announced Ledecky, who also shared photographs of the event on her social media pages, following the Friday afternoon ceremony held in the East Room of the White House before hundreds of guests.

Ledecky was among 19 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. The group included Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, an intervention and rehabilitation program for gang members in Los Angeles; Elizabeth Dole, a former U.S. senator, U.S. secretary of labor and president of the American Red Cross; Medgar Evers (awarded posthumously), a pioneering civil rights leader murdered in 1963; and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"Powered by faith, family, and teamwork, Katie Ledecky is a symbol of perseverance and strength with a heart of gold that shines for the nation and for the world," President Joe Biden said before presenting the honor to the swimmer.

A graduate of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington, Ledecky plans to compete in her fourth summer Olympic Games July 26-Aug. 11 in Paris.

During the summer of 2012, Ledecky was a rising 15-year-old sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda when she was the youngest athlete on the U.S. Olympic swim team and won her first gold medal in the women's 800-meter women's freestyle race during the London Olympics.

Before she headed off to her inaugural Summer Games, Ledecky told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, that to calm her nerves she always prays right before a race.

"The prayer I say is the 'Hail Mary,'" said Ledecky, adding that her faith and the sacraments give her a welcome opportunity to pause in her busy routine. "I also love going to Mass every week. It's a great chance to reflect and connect with God. (My faith) has been a big part of my life since I was born."

Although the medals, records, accolades and commercial endorsements have mounted up in the ensuing years, Ledecky is very much the same humble, hometown athletic phenom she was 12 years ago.

Following the Tokyo Summer Games, Ledecky returned to Stone Ridge in the fall of 2021 to a hero's welcome, speaking to students and answering their questions for two hours. Wearing her new, shiny gold and silver swimming medals around her neck, Ledecky spoke about her Olympic experiences and her intense swim regime, while encouraging the students to work hard and follow their own dreams.

At the time, she told the Catholic Standard she was grateful for her lifelong Catholic faith -- something she especially relied on during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it remained very important in her life, especially the during the difficult challenges of the global shutdown -- which led to a year's postponement of the 2020 Summer Games. She recalled attending Mass virtually every week with her family whom she hadn't seen in person since December 2019.

"My faith is strong, and I realized more how important that is," she said.

Ledecky told the students her proudest moments are not the Olympic medals, but rather the happiness she found in and the gratitude she has for the communities she has been a part of and which have supported her throughout the years -- including her Catholic school alma maters, Stanford University, Bethesda and the entire Washington region.

"Yes, (the medals) are heavy, but they are small relative to all the hard work from my family, my parents (David and Mary Gen), my brother (Michael)," she said. "(The medals) are a great symbol (of the work). It takes a village. I wish I could give medals to all of you." Ledecky began swimming at age 6 at her neighborhood community pool.

During her years swimming for the Stone Ridge Gators, Ledecky set many records there, and after her initial triumph in the London Olympics in 2012, she went on to even greater success at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. At the Tokyo Games, then 24-year-old Ledecky won her 10th Olympic medal for swimming, adding two gold and two silver medals to her collection. She also won the inaugural gold in the women's 1500-meter freestyle swim, a first-time Olympic event.

At the 2023 World Aquatics Championships, Ledecky won gold medals in the women's 1500-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle and silver medals in the women's 4x200-meter freestyle relay and 400-meter freestyle.

Following the White House ceremony, tributes flooded Ledecky's Facebook and Instagram pages, with many followers offering their hearty congratulations for her recent honor. Other messages included those of support, pride and gratitude from individuals all over the United States.

In one Facebook comment, a mother wrote, "You are such an inspiration for my little girl! We are so lucky to have you as a role model not only in the pool, but outside as well. Congratulations, Katie!!"

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