Katie Ledecky Is Ready to Make Her 4th Olympic Team (Exclusive)

Katie Ledecky is ready to set new records in the pool this summer, but the seven-time Olympic gold medalist is also taking time to look back on how she achieved G.O.A.T. status.

In her new memoir Just Add Water: My Swimming Life, the 27-year-old iconic swimmer shares her own perspective on reaching the pinnacle of the sport — and it all started in a pool in Maryland when she was six years old.

“I joined a team that was part of the Montgomery County Swim League, which is a huge league in Maryland and all these summer league teams are — they’re the place where a lot of young kids start to swim and find their love of the sport,” Ledecky tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. “And that’s what I certainly found.”

Ledecky’s love of the water fueled her competitive spirit throughout her childhood, and beyond.

“I remember looking up to the big kids in the summer league. It ranges from age 6 to 18,” she tells PEOPLE. “So I remember looking up to the 18-year-olds and just watching them swim and watching them have fun and do different things.”

Katie Ledecky.

Simon and Schuster

She continues, “And so just kind of playing around in the pool with the older kids was always something that I loved. And then I loved going to practice. I loved the cold water in the summer. I loved just hanging out at the pool with my teammates all day, doing practice, playing Sharks and Minnows and other games and practicing again or getting swim lessons. So it was a lot of fun to just spend time at the pool.”

Two decades later, Ledecky is the most decorated female swimmer in Olympic history.

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In addition to her seven golds, the Stanford University grad has won three silver medals since she made her Olympics debut at the 2012 Games in London. An Olympic champion at every swimming distance from the 200 to 1500 meters, she has also won 16 world championship titles, making her the most decorated world champion swimmer, regardless of gender.

But just over two years ago, Ledecky was looking for a new challenge. After training in California for years, she made a change to her training regimen.

Katie Ledecky.

Jerome Ibrahim/ISI Photos/Getty

“I’ve been [at The University of] Florida for about two and a half years now. I’ve really enjoyed it,” she says. “I’ve been able to train with some of the top male distance swimmers in the country and in the world, so that’s been beneficial for my training and I try to keep them on their toes as well. And it’s just a really fun environment.”

Now, as Ledecky eyes a spot on Team USA at the Paris Olympics, the three-time Olympian — who was the youngest American participant at the London Olympics when she won a then-surprise gold in the 800-meter freestyle — is marveling at the “surreal” notion that she’s now considered a veteran in the sport.

“I want to make sure that I’m being a leader for our team, both in and out of the pool and making sure that the younger swimmers feel like they belong on that team and belong at the Olympic level,” she tells PEOPLE, adding that she’s also concerned with making “sure that they feel comfortable and confident going out there and competing with the best in the world.”

Katie Ledecky poses with her two gold and two silver medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 31, 2021.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty

And on the eve of the Olympic Trials this weekend in Indianapolis, Ledecky is letting the feeling of another Olympics wash over her.

“It’s a little surreal. I mean, I don’t think I would’ve expected to necessarily still be at this level this many years later,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to see into the future that I would be competing in 2024. So yeah, I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take these opportunities for granted, and I just try to enjoy each day of the training and the process.”

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.com and come to people.com to check out ongoing coverage before, during and after the games. Watch the Paris Olympics and Paralympics, beginning July 26, on NBC and Peacock.

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