The Fan in Kazan

KAZAN, Russia—“Katie Ledecky? Sister?”

A 10-year-old Russian boy raises his eyebrows into a disbelieving grin and points at me.

“Sister, Katie Ledecky!”

He turns to his young friend and speaks in excited tones, repeating my surname with its original Slavic pronunciation. He turns back to me again, tapping his cheek.

“I want kiss Katie Ledecky.”

“Hey, you better watch it,” I shoot back with a smile.

His friend pipes up.

“Number One fan, Katie Ledecky!” he proclaims slowly, gesturing at himself with his right arm, which is wrapped in a gauze cast. He then quickly revises his statement.

“Wait—not Number One fan; Number One fan, family.”

It’s my penultimate day at Kazan Arena, and my 18-year-old sister is in line to make history. With a win tonight, Katie Ledecky will become the first woman to win four individual gold medals in a single World Swimming Championships, completing a unique sweep of all freestyle events 200 meters and over. She’s seeded first in the 800-meter freestyle, an event she hasn’t lost since she was at least 13.

“You can be Number Two fan,” I tell the boy. “Cheer hard for her in the 800!”

As I exit the concourse and rejoin my parents and uncle in the prefabricated stands overlooking the competition pool, I replay the brief exchange in my head and laugh to myself. Just five days earlier, the home crowd did not seem particularly interested in watching Katie swim. There were no Russian entries for the prelims of the women’s 1500-meter freestyle, so most local spectators vacated the future World Cup soccer stadium before the final heat. Yet the thousand or so who stayed found a swimmer from a different country to support. As Katie maintained contact with her pace, the voice of the arena’s Russian public address announcer grew faster and higher. A section at the far end of the pool got behind her with thunder sticks and the air began to buzz. As she climbed out of the pool with a new world record in tow, several local fans approached me for photos.

Three years have passed since Katie has won her Olympic gold medal, but I’m still getting used to the idea of her as an international sports star. In most ways, she’s the same person who joined the neighborhood swim team with me just over 12 years ago. She approaches life with a humble and happy personality and attacks her craft with a single-minded focus. She has a natural love for the water that can come out during meet warm-ups, in which she might briefly roll onto her back and perform some synchronized swimming-like sculls as she tries to wave to her family members in the stands.

At about 7 p.m. Moscow Time, Katie steps onto her starting block for the 800. She calmly runs through her pre-start routine—three short handclaps followed by three shoulder nudges into her goggle sockets as she crouches down into her mark. From the start, she’s the quickest off the blocks and establishes a body-length lead by 100 meters. She rides high in the water with a distinctive gallop as her legs create minimal resistance. By 400 meters, I know that she’s on the way to her 10th career world record.

It’s hard to describe how I feel when I watch Katie set a global mark. I lose a little sense of awareness and yell in a voice that sounds like a dying dog when it’s played back to me. If you’re a hockey fan, think about how you feel when your favorite team scores a Game 7 overtime goal, stretch that feeling over four to 15 minutes, and then multiply that feeling by 10. Despite all the yards I have logged in the pool, I can only imagine how Katie feels. After lowering her 1500 mark for a second time this week, she looked skyward and pointed upwards. She told reporters afterwards that she “dug deep” after her mind drifted to our deceased grandfathers during the race.

After 6,150 meters of racing on the week (over 67 football fields, according to the good folks at NBC), Katie can finally leave it all in the pool. At the final turn, she whips out six underwater dolphin kicks into a furious whitewater sprint to the finish. The wake between her and the red line superimposed on the arena video board grows visibly larger. I clumsily try to capture her final strokes with my camera before I swing my head around to the results board. When I see her time, I can muster only two words.

“Holy crap.”

I will always be my sister’s Number One fan.

Michael D. Ledecky ‘16, a Crimson sports writer, is a government concentrator in Leverett House.

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