The most dominant distance swimmer of her generation serves meals to the homeless once a month.

Maryland teenager Katie Ledecky also collects, assembles and repairs bicycles for developing countries instead of attending classes every other week during the school year.

The Stanford-bound swim star volunteers with the Wounded Warrior Project at the Walter Reed Bethesda Naval Medical Center and is a member of Help2 0, a group that raises awareness and money to benefit the construction of water wells in developing countries.

Ledecky and Cal sophomore Missy Franklin -- the young faces of American swimming -- are competing at the Phillips 66 U.S. championships Wednesday through Sunday in Irvine.

Ledecky, 17, isn't just another dedicated swimmer churning through chlorinated pools mornings and evenings. She describes herself as a devout Catholic who embraces the religion's call to service.

"My faith has always been important to me," Ledecky said in a recent interview. "It defines who I am."

Most know her as an Olympic gold medalist, world-record holder and four-time world champion.

The high schooler has put aside the extra curricular activities to join other American stars such as Cal's Natalie Coughlin, Nathan Adrian and Franklin in trying to qualify for the Pan-Pacific Championships later this month and the 2015 World Championships. The meet in Irvine serves as a qualifier for both international events.


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Ledecky opens the meet Wednesday with the 800-meter freestyle, the event she won at the London Games as the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team. She is scheduled to swim the 400 meters Saturday and the non-Olympic 1,500 meters Sunday.

Qualifying for the world's biggest meets before the 2016 Olympics in Brazil is important for a young woman bringing glamour to distance swimming.

In June, Ledecky illustrated why so many coaches expect her to be the next breakout star.

She lowered her world records in the 1,500 meters and 800 at a small meet near Houston after rigorous high-altitude training in Colorado. Ledecky won the 1,500 in 15 minutes, 34.23 seconds, 2.3 seconds faster than her previous record. Ledecky lowered her 800 mark to 8:11.

Both records fell although she had no one pushing her and was not rested for peak performances.

Ledecky also is the only woman to swim the 400-meter freestyle in under 4 minutes in a textile suit -- 3:59.82. A number of world marks have asterisks because they were produced in the 2000s with aerodynamically designed swimsuits that are now outlawed.

Ledecky is following a long tradition of American distance prowess. Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett dominated the endurance events in the 1980s and 1990s. Then came suburban Washington, D.C., stars Katie Hoff and Kate Ziegler in the 2000s.

"It's a great time to be a distance swimmer in the United States," Ledecky said. "I'm just drawn toward those events."

But she's also fast in the 100 meters and 200 meters. As former coach Yuri Suguiyama puts it, Ledecky is just plain fast.

"There is a desire to be great," said Suguiyama, now the Cal men's distance coach. "The idea of not doing her best doesn't sit well with her."

Ledecky would have been the nation's biggest recruit in the coming school year had she not announced in spring her intention of attending Stanford in the fall of 2015.

"It just felt right," she said of one of the nation's elite women's programs. "It wasn't like I was rushing so I could enjoy the summer."

Ledecky said the school fits her interests in government and politics that come from growing up inside the Beltway.

And hey, it's not a bad place to swim, either.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865.