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Says her longtime coach, Ray Benecki: “She’s gradually become more relaxed and doesn’t mind the attention now. She’s knows it’s coming, so she accepts it.”

The combination of success and Ziegler’s personality have increased her visibility in the swimming world. She has a Wikipedia entry (she hasn’t read it), and four of her races are on YouTube (she has watched each of them).

“I’ve never thought of myself as somebody people knew,” she says. “I never thought somebody would actually want my autograph. But since worlds and breaking the 1,500 record, people sometimes whisper when I walk by saying, ‘Hey, that’s Kate Ziegler.’ And I’m like, ‘They’re talking about me?’ ”

There has been plenty to talk about just this year.

At the world championships in April, she repeated her titles in the 800 and 1,500. Earlier this summer, she broke Janet Evans‘ 19-year-old world record in the 1,500. Last week at the U.S. championships, she won the 400 and 800 and was third in the 200. She also tried her first 10K open water swim earlier this week, finishing seventh.

The success has opened doors for Ziegler. She turned professional last year after graduating from Bishop O’Connell High School and signed sponsorship deals with Speedo and Mutual of Omaha; the former provides equipment, the latter compensates her for conducting clinics around the country.

This morning, she was scheduled to appear on the “Today Show” in New York with Evans, the top distance swimmer in American history.

“We get calls from sponsors on a regular basis,” says Evan Morgenstein, Ziegler’s agent at Premier Management Group. “The phone rings because of her performance and the way she handles herself and how much Kate has shown for Janet Evans and how much Janet truly likes her. And beating some [Olympic] swimmers has also raised her profile.”

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Ziegler’s road to the Olympics started three years ago after the U.S. Olympic trials in Long Beach, Calif. She finished fourth in the 800 free and fifth in the 400 free. Only the top two American finishers advance to the Olympics.

But instead of taking a break, Ziegler — in a course plotted by Benecki — returned to training almost immediately in preparation for the 2004 U.S. championships, a meet most swimmers don’t take seriously or don’t compete in at all.

“She got off the plane, and she had her very best practice the next morning,” Benecki recalls. “She swam out of her mind. She was already looking forward to the next four years.”

Ziegler won the 400 and 1,500 and finished second in the 800. The next year, in her first international competition at the senior level, she won the 800 and 1,500 at the world championships in Montreal.

The days of sneaking up on the competition officially were over.

The days of thinking of the Olympics as more than just possible were officially underway.

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