Katie Ledecky has captured worldwide attention at the Rio Olympics this week, grabbing three gold medals and a world record (so far) in the pool.
Her swim to glory has Albuquerque roots.
Ledecky, who will chase a fourth gold medal in today’s 800-meter freestyle competition, credits her family’s remarkable journey for her success. That includes two stops in Albuquerque, where her mother, Mary Gen Ledecky, swam for the University of New Mexico and started her professional career.
Mary Gen (short for Genevieve) never approached her daughter’s success in the pool. Few have.
Still, the former Mary Gen Hagan excelled in and out of the water, enough to create long-lasting relationships with her former Lobo coaches, teammates and professional colleagues.
“Everyone loved Mary Gen,” said UNM president Robert Frank, a former Lobo swimmer who served as an assistant swim coach during part of Mary Gen’s time at UNM. “She was always very positive, got out of the pool and cheered for her teammates, and she was a really good swimmer, too. We all thought she was great until we saw Katie.”
Like her daughter, Mary Gen was strong in freestyle. She qualified for nationals three times during her UNM career (1975-78) and was ranked among the top 20 nationally at the 200-meter distance.
But Mary Gen’s upbeat personality and her fierce determination seemed to strike people most. Those qualities ultimately helped her to become associate administrator at Washington’s Georgetown Hospital – and one of the world’s most celebrated swim moms.
“As a swimmer she came to every single practice, rain or shine,” said former Lobo teammate Chris Lautman, who now works for AT&T in Seattle. “Everything she did she was all-in, and you can see that in her daughter.”
Sink or swim
Neither Mary Gen nor Katie might have ventured into competitive swimming but for a near disaster during Mary Gen’s childhood. On a family vacation to Glacier National Park, Mary Gen’s 4-year-old younger sister fell into a lake and nearly drowned.
The experience drove their father, Bud Hagan, a decorated combat surgeon during World War II, to require that his children learn to swim. In fact, he helped pass a rule in the family’s hometown of Williston, N.D., that elementary school-age children take swimming lessons. Bud Hagan also helped push through construction of an Olympic-sized pool and natatorium now named in his honor.
That pool was where Mary Gen began to shine as a swimmer, eventually beating her older brothers in races. After swimming one season at College of Great Falls in Montana, she moved to UNM and immediately hit it off with her new teammates.
“Mary Gen was very friendly and had a great laugh,” recalled then-Lobo swimmer Jim Smith, who is now a commercial real estate broker in Albuquerque. “She always had a great work ethic, too. That’s one thing Katie inherited that’s absolutely the same.”
Rick Klatt, head coach of the UNM swimming team during Mary Gen’s tenure, had a similar perspective. Like Mary Gen, Klatt is in Rio de Janeiro this week and was not available to comment for this story. He did recall Mary Gen’s UNM days for a Sports Illustrated feature on Ledecky earlier this summer.
“Every set she did in practice, every race Mary Gen swam, she was as tired as anyone could get,” said Klatt, whose son, Dan, is an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s water polo team. “Katie’s at a different level, but her mom was that kind of worker. I can remember her heaving for air after races. There was never any lack of effort in any workout or any meet. She was going after it as hard as she could.”
Frank sees more similarities when watching Ledecky swim.
“Mary Gen always just got in the water, put her head down and went hard,” Frank said. “Katie does that. They’re exactly alike except for the speed.”
Mary Gen’s success is also measured outside the pool. After graduating from UNM, she went on to earn a masters at Seattle University and served an internship at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. Her path then wound back to Albuquerque, where she worked as an administrator at UNM Hospital from 1986-89.
Stephen McKernan, CEO of UNM Hospital, worked alongside Mary Gen.
“When she set her mind to something, she had the whole package,” McKernan said. “She’s very, very smart and very personable. She’s a good leader but works great in teams, too. Mary Gen’s small-town upbringing is a big part of her.”
Drive is an equally apparent trait that’s been passed on to her children. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, Mary Gen explained the fast-start philosophy that both she and Katie have employed.
“I liked breathing and seeing flat water,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to worry about wave turbulence. When my kids were swimming and doing summer league, we had this joke. I’d say, ‘Just go out and take the lead and try to keep it.’ ”
Though her family now lives in the Baltimore area, Mary Gen has stayed in contact with many of her New Mexico friends. Frank met her for lunch last year in Washington, and Smith sent Mary Gen an email after reading the recent Sports Illustrated feature.
“I wished her and Katie good luck in Rio,” Smith said, “and she answered that they weren’t thinking about it yet. Even though Katie had like the nine fastest times in the world, they were only focused on the (U.S.) Trials in Omaha. Very Mary Gen-like, I thought.”
Frank said he was struck by the fact that neither professional success nor Katie’s superstardom has affected Mary Gen’s personality.
“When we had lunch it all came flooding back what a genuine, engaging person she is,” Frank said. “She’s untouched by it all. Even Katie’s success hasn’t gone to her head. She’s just another swim mom.”
Perhaps that’s why Mary Gen’s former coaches, teammates and colleagues find themselves rooting for her daughter.
“I was at the Isotopes game (Tuesday) night and kept checking my phone to see how Katie was doing,” Smith said. “Once she won, I said, ‘Now I can watch the game.’ It’s cool to have that little link to Albuquerque.”
Frank has also enjoyed watching Katie compete this week, especially when television cameras catch Mary Gen celebrating her daughter’s Olympic victories from the stands.
“I’m so happy for her,” Frank said. “Mary Gen’s a great lady. We’re proud she was a Lobo.”