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Iron Butterfly: Katie Ledecky fulfills her fate with five medals at Rio Olympics

There was little doubt surrounding Katie Ledecky every time she dove into the pool at the 2016 Rio Olympics—her final meet with current coach Bruce Gemmell before she heads to Stanford—and her multi-medal performance put her on the list of most dominant athletes alive.

This story appeared in the August 22, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

It was the butterfly that sealed it. Jon Ledecky was already having an unusually heady day for an 11-year-old: The principal at his elementary school in Queens, N.Y., had introduced him as a future U.S. president, then Jon had given a speech to his classmates and then he had walked outside with the priest who had given the blessing. That's when the yellow butterfly fluttered onto the back of his hand and sat there, beautiful and calm. "Oh, my God," the priest said. "It's a sign."

So, yes, Jon had cause to think that he was destined to do something great. And he did go on to build a billion-dollar business, give away millions to charity and, last month, at 58, become co-owner of the New York Islanders. By most standards he lived up to that lepidopteran promise—and had the markers to prove it.

But what if, all along, none of that was the prophecy? What if Jon's true fate was to meet Mary Gen Hagan one day in 1990, to instantly know that she was his brother's match and to set out to introduce them? The next weekend she and David Ledecky would talk for 3 1/2 hours at a party in Old Town Alexandria, Va., and David would snatch her card from Jon and call her a day later. In two years they would marry. In 1997 they would have a baby and name her Katie.

"When I met Mary Gen, things slowed down," Jon says. "That's why I was so emphatic that my brother meet her. It was like a bright light shined on her and said, This is your brother's wife. Dave was not in the mood to go to that party, and I literally dragged him. Who knows? If you believe in faith—and Katie has this deep belief in faith—something was going on there. That was the butterfly moment."

Watch: Michael Phelps teaches Katie Ledecky the art of arranging medals

Katie Ledecky won the Olympic 800-meter freestyle final last Friday for her fourth gold medal—and fifth overall—at the Rio Games, and such has been her form that the result was never in doubt. Finishing at least nine body lengths ahead, she clocked a stunning 8:04.79 to ravage her own world record by nearly two seconds; Ledecky now owns the event's top 13 times. She became just the second woman, after Debbie Meyer in 1968, to sweep the 200, 400 and 800 frees at an Olympics, leaving the gobsmacked grasping for superlatives. "What she's doing in the sport is ridiculous," said Michael Phelps, winner of 23 career gold medals. "She gets in the water and pretty much gives every world record a scare."

"I don't think she knows her top end yet," said U.S. Olympic coach David Marsh. In other words, at 19—the U.S. team's youngest swimmer for the second straight Olympics—Ledecky seems only to be getting started. "She could still be swimming in 2024," said freestyle legend Janet Evans. "She's so far ahead, stratospherically ahead, that [if] she wants to, she could swim for a very long time."

She seems to want to. In Rio, Ledecky crushed her own world record in the 400 meters—again by nearly two seconds—with a time of 3:56.46; edged out both 2016's top racer, Sarah Sjöström, and the world-record holder, Federica Pellegrini, in the 200; and flipped a .89-of-a-second deficit into a 1.84-second lead while anchoring the 4x200 team to gold. The Olympics don't include the women's 1,500-meter swim, in which Ledecky also owns the world record, so for the last year she cast her eye downward. Indeed, the one race she lost in Rio was perhaps the most telling.

All spring Ledecky had kept the 100 meters in mind—which is the equivalent, in track terms, of a miler dreaming of racing Usain Bolt. During one mediocre April practice she suddenly slashed five seconds off four straight repeat 100s. Why? "I was sucking," she told her coach, Bruce Gemmell, so she imagined that her male training partners were top Australian sprinters Cate and Bronte Campbell. "I knew there was a chance I would be on that relay and put in that position," Ledecky said last week, "so I needed to be ready."

At that point, understand, Ledecky was thought to be a long shot to swim the 4x100 relay. In July, not fully rested, she finished seventh in the 100 at the U.S. swim trials, and she entered the Olympics ranked 17th in the world at the distance. Her Team USA coaches and teammates, though, kept talking about her consistently brutal pace at pre-Olympic training camps in San Antonio and Atlanta; she'd train against men and sometimes beat them, getting angry when she didn't touch first. No teammate was surprised when Ledecky posted the fastest U.S. time (52.64) in the 4x100 prelims on Aug. 6, forcing the coaches to name her—for the first time in international competition—anchor of the squad for the finals.

Ledecky inherited a .42 deficit when she dived in, and, yes, Cate Campbell, the 100-meter world-record holder, beat her on the final leg by .82 seconds, and the Australians set a world record (3:30.65). But Ledecky was coming hard at the end and posted a 27.40 to Campbell's 27.82 over the final 50 meters. "I knew I had it in me to put up a fight," Ledecky said.

Phelps, Ledecky, Biles grace Sports Illustrated cover

By the time she said this, early Saturday morning after the 800, the public knew, too. She was now on everyone's short list of the most dominant athletes alive. What no one expected is what came next: Ledecky, who for four years had met the press with cheery reserve, lost all composure. Answering questions after the race, she began speaking of the 55-year-old Gemmell, her coach since the 2012 Olympics, and how "the memories mean a lot more than the medals to me." Her voice cracked, then she burst into tears. "I'm sorry," she said. Someone tried to steer her back to swimming, but Ledecky's face had gone crimson, veins on her forehead popping as she struggled for control. "We're all going to miss being here. I don't know why I'm crying, but there were nights where I would go to bed and think about this day and how much fun I've had these past four years and I would start crying in bed. I just wanted to make this meet count."

Some of the emotion stemmed from relief after maintaining a furious three-year focus and from seeing family she hadn't hugged in a month. Ledecky cried staring at her parents and her brother, Michael, as the flag rose above them and the anthem was played. She cried in her press conference. She cried again a few minutes later under the Aquatics Stadium, alone in a room that she'll most likely never see again.


Gemmell was the big reason. A former engineer, as brainy and committed to process as Ledecky, and able to puncture pretension and pressure with a quip or a simple "Have fun out there," he gave form to her ambition, setting what he calls her Big Fat Hairy Goals after she broke out at the 2013 world championships. He pushed Ledecky to the 200 win, and to world-record times in the 400 and the 800 that were unthinkable before last week. Now her plan is to go to Stanford for all four years, and that means she and Gemmell—who for the moment operates out of Nation's Capital Swim Club in McLean, Va.—must part ways.

"Trust me," she texted her mom Friday morning, after waking with a sore throat, "I won't screw this one up.... Last one with Bruce." That may be so, though some wonder how long Ledecky will be able to resist the lure of turning pro or, more likely, of re-creating the era when she and Gemmell made each other great. "She certainly made me expand what I thought was possible," the coach said last Saturday. Cheery reserve is his default mode, too, but these Olympics cracked him open as well. When he and Ledecky finally met in a hallway after the medal ceremony, they hugged and cried together. Describing it, Gemmell could barely manage a word.

"As soon as I came down the steps ... there she is," he said. "And I said, God damn." It hit him: He's never handled an athlete who approached competition so purely; he'll never again coach anyone this good. Coaches have butterfly moments, too.

"There's some of that, yes," Gemmell said, and paused. He repeated the word slowly, then louder as his eyes filled; it was like watching a heartbreak take hold. "Yes," he said. "Yes. Yes."