MESA, Ariz. -- Growing up as a swimmer in Maryland, Katie Ledecky had no shortage of local heroes to look up to.
At the top of that list, of course, was Baltimore native Michael Phelps, whose 22 Olympic medals (18 of them gold) are unmatched.
Ledecky, a Bethesda native, remembers a childhood trip to the University of Maryland to watch Phelps and other future Olympians compete, and she remembers how excited she felt upon getting an autograph from “The Baltimore Bullet.”
Now at opposite ends of their elite careers, the two swimmers’ paths cross again this week at the Arena Pro Swim Series in Mesa, Arizona. Ledecky, 18 and arguably the world’s most dominant swimmer, plans to compete in seven races this week, ranging from the 100-meter freestyle to the 1,500 free, which she won by 44 seconds Wednesday night. Phelps, 29 and coming off a six-month suspension for drunk driving, is scheduled for five races as he restarts the comeback that he hopes will end with his fifth Olympic Games next summer.
|Katie Ledecky launches off the blocks in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Arena Pro Swim Series at the Skyline Aquatic Center on April 15, 2015 in Mesa, Ariz.
“Watching Katie doing what she has been doing over the last two or three years has been wild,” Phelps said. “Watching her swim last summer brought back so many memories for me of when I was her age doing those things. It’s cool to watch, and I couldn’t be happier about it.”
Since winning the Olympic 800 free as a 15-year-old in 2012, Ledecky has taken over the sport. After winning four world championship titles in 2013, Ledecky won five titles at last summer’s Pan Pacific Championships, in the process becoming the first woman to win four individual Pan Pac races. Meanwhile, she comes into this weekend with world records in the sport’s three longest freestyle events: 400, 800 and 1,500.
Those records, combined with her gold medal in the Olympic Games’ longest individual women’s event (besides the open-water marathon), suggest that Ledecky is the sport’s dominant distance swimmer.
As evidenced by her entries in Mesa, however, she pushes back at the notion of being pigeonholed as a distance swimmer.
“I think it’s a sense of pride: I don’t think I should be labeled as a distance swimmer,” she said. “I feel like I’m more of a freestyler all around. Freestyle has always been my love from day one.”
As she tests her speed in seven different races, she has the potential to make history next year at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. As for now, though, her thoughts are focused more on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Rio is on my mind a little bit. It’s coming up quickly. But you have to get through Omaha first,” Ledecky said. “That’s what I need to focus on, to set myself up for this summer and for next.”
Both Ledecky and Phelps realize that she’s now beginning a journey that looks remarkably like the one he traveled back in 2008. Ledecky said she remembers watching Phelps and others as a kid, and uses those memories to motivate herself to do more to give back to fans.
“It’s been really meaningful,” she said. “Growing up in Maryland, he was one of those people at that national meet that I got an autograph from. He’s always been a role-model for all swimmers, and I think everyone’s excited to see how he’ll do here in Mesa.”
While Ledecky has already reached the top of her sport, she has done so while simultaneously finishing her high school career. Now she is deciding when to begin classes at Stanford University.
In the meantime, though, Ledecky is prepping for next summer’s Olympic Games, where she could be in for the most dominant performance since Phelps won his record eight gold medals in 2008 in Beijing.
Now in a very different part of his swimming career, Phelps can look back and appreciate what Ledecky is embarking on. She’s come a long way from the days of being a young swimmer asking for his autograph.
“That’s kind of funny, I didn’t realize I gave her an autograph when she was 6,” Phelps said. “I guess I have been swimming that long. I guess I am the old man now. It’s things like that, where if you’re doing something to make kids happy and make them dream beyond the things that other kids are dreaming of. That’s the sport of swimming changing.”
Clayton Klapper is a writer based in Arizona. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.