BY PHILIP HERSH
It is repetition that defines Katie Ledecky. You see it when she stands on the starting block, waiting for the signals that begin a race, pushing and pulling on her swim cap several times, using her hands and elbows and the crook of her arm to fiddle with her goggles. It is why, for reasons she cannot remember, she claps her hands three times just before the beep to dive into the pool, a ritual that has always worked and therefore stands as its own reason.
There is comfort in doing things the same way. At critical moments, it removes the confusion of change. And yet, at the moment the world first saw the record-breaking swimming that would become the emblematic definition of Ledecky, it also saw a 15-year-old with the presence of mind to realize there was a time to let the ritual go.
It was just before the 800-meter freestyle final at the 2012 London Olympics. Ledecky could barely hear the starter given the noise from a crowd determined to will the Brit, Rebecca Adlington, to a second straight Olympic gold medal in the race. Ledecky worried about being late to take her mark if she clapped, worried that everyone else would leave her behind at the start. She was the youngest of 532 athletes on the U.S. team, in many eyes a very unexpected qualifier, so why wouldn't she feel a little uncertain?
She thought about the karmic consequences of breaking the routine and the value of playing it safe. Then she gave in to a bit of teenage angst.
"I was like, 'I don't want to embarrass myself and not go when everyone else does,'" she said.
A little more than eight minutes later, the crowd would do the clapping. Beating the field (including the favored Adlington, who finished third) by more than four seconds, Ledecky was Olympic champion. She also broke the U.S. record set 23 years earlier by Janet Evans, the four-time Olympic champion and multiple world-record setter who remains a standard against whom all women's distance swimmers are judged.
It was the beginning of the pattern with which Katie Ledecky has defined herself in a sport where doing something over and over again is necessary to succeed, where she has had one stunning swim after another. World record after world record, world title after world title.
For my whole long form profile of Katie on ESPN.COM, click here