“As a realistic goal, it started after trials because I finished fourth in the 800 and I figured, ‘I’m only 16, if I continue this progression, it could happen,’ ” Ziegler says. “But when it really hit me was in Montreal. I remember thinking, ‘First in the world? That’s pretty cool.’ ”
It was after Montreal that turning professional first appeared on Ziegler’s radar.
Before the worlds, Ziegler naturally assumed her career would continue at a college powerhouse.
“There were some whispers after I got back from Montreal about going pro, but I certainly didn’t think it was an option,” she says. “I thought I had to be much faster than I was swimming. But when we looked into it, there was interest, and it turned out to be an awesome option.”
What made turning pro sensible was that Ziegler could stay in the area without disrupting her training routine. If she had moved to college, she wouldn’t train year-round with Benecki, who has coached her for seven years. A new coach might have his or her own ideas about training and own interests (national titles) in mind instead of Ziegler’s interests (the Olympics).
“She’s different,” Benecki says. “She doesn’t train by just swimming humongous amounts. She’s not the kind of swimmer that trains well by being broken down in the fall and then overdoing it in the hope she can get it back together by the spring. She would have had to relearn a new coach, and she couldn’t afford to experiment for a year or two.”
Before making the decision, Benecki and Ziegler put together a questionnaire about how coaches operate their specific teams. They sent about 20 and got fewer than five responses. After graduating from high school in 2006, she turned pro and enrolled at George Mason, where she took a full class load, lived in the dorms and practiced with the school’s swim team in her role as a volunteer coach.
“I can be very consistent in my training,” she says. “It’s allowed me to basically do whatever I want whenever I want.”
The schedule is intense. Five mornings a week (Monday through Friday), Ziegler swims 8,000-8,500 meters; four afternoons a week (Monday-Thursday), she swims 5,500 meters; on Sundays, she swims 9,000-10,000 meters.
In Mission Viejo, Calif., on June 17, as Ziegler completed her warmup, the last thing she anticipated was a world record in the 1,500 meters. She had come close before — by less than a second March 27 in Australia — but didn’t figure she had a shot at breaking Evans‘ record, set in March 1988.
“I wasn’t swimming fast, wasn’t hitting my times, wasn’t swimming the pace I like to before a race,” Ziegler says. “I went into the race saying, ‘Just do your best and see what happens.’
“And then things went really well.”
Did they ever.
“She hit the water and looked fantastic,” Benecki remembers.