Katie Ledecky was getting her headset adjusted for a post-race, pool-deck interview with Universal Sports broadcasters when a voice that belonged to neither play-by-play man Ted Robinson nor analyst Rowdy Gaines filtered into her ears.
“Katie, can we have a match race?” a man’s voice said Friday night. That was Michael Phelps.
Ledecky’s eyes widened. She grinned.
“Sure,” she said, not missing a beat.
“We need to have a match race, since we tied this morning, I think a match race would be pretty fun,” Phelps said, referring to the 400m freestyle preliminary heats at the Pro Swim Series at Mesa, Ariz.
Earlier Friday, Ledecky swam a 400m freestyle heat in 4:02.67, well off her world record of 3:58.37, but still 9.2 seconds faster than any other woman.
About a half-hour later, Phelps swam in the men’s 400m freestyle heats and clocked 4:02.67, the exact same time as Ledecky. He placed 17th overall for the men in an event he had not swum since 2009.
Phelps skipped Friday night’s consolation final at his first meet since August. Ledecky did enter the pool in her 400m free final and won in 4:01.95, by 8.39 seconds.
Phelps provided commentary during the race on Universal Sports and was eager to ask Ledecky to a head-to-head race in the post-race interview.
“Sure, want to go in an hour?” Ledecky asked.
“No, I want to go right now, ’cause you’re tired,” Phelps responded without a pronounced laugh but surely in jest.
Phelps also spoke about Ledecky during her race as a broadcast analyst.
“She steps on the gas so hard,” Phelps said. “She has a body-length lead at the 50 [meter mark] here in the 400m free. … I’ve watched her stroke so much, really, over the last couple of years. Really, she swims almost like a guy. Her long, loping stroke … stronger and stronger throughout the race. I think her stroke is so different from all the other females that she swims against.”
Phelps said he and coach Bob Bowman talked about Ledecky’s 400m free world record earlier Friday.
“When Janet [Evans] went 4:03, that record stood forever,” Phelps said, of Evans’ mark set in 1988 that lasted to 2006. “Every time Katie gets in the water, oh yeah, 4:02, no big deal. Just a casual 4:02. And then, hey, we’ll just give the world record a shot tonight. Why not?
“It doesn’t even look like she’s breathing hard,” Phelps said after Ledecky’s victory Friday night. “It’s just unbelievable.”
Phelps has experience racing against women. He was in the pool with Australian Libby Trickett at the 2007 Duel in the Pool for a mixed relay. Phelps clocked 48.72 in a 100m free leadoff leg there, while Trickett swam 52.99, the fastest 100m ever by a woman. It was not ratified as a world record because it came in a race with men.
Interestingly enough, mixed relays will be part of the World Championships program for the first time this year. Phelps and Ledecky don’t appear to be headed to swim in the same relay, though, because Phelps is not on the U.S. roster for Worlds following his DUI arrest in September.