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So far, so fast

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Sometimes, when the alarm clock buzzes at 4:45 a.m. or her rotator cuff starts throbbing halfway through an 8,500-meter workout, Kate Ziegler would love to become a regular 19-year-old student at George Mason, somebody who doesn't have to schedule visits to Dulles Town Center around marathon swimming sessions, meetings with her agent and sponsorship commitments around the country.

It's what Ziegler calls being "rundown tired."

But often, time flies.

It seems like yesterday she was competing in her first U.S. Olympic trials — that was three years ago. It seems like an hour ago that she burst onto the international scene with two wins at the world championships — that was two years ago. And it seems like a minute ago she solidified her standing as the planet's top distance swimmer with a repeat performance at worlds — that was four-plus months ago.

A year from today, the Summer Olympics kick off in Beijing, and the first nine days will be highlighted by a swimming competition so anticipated that NBC has convinced the International Olympic Committee to hold the finals during the morning so they can be televised in prime time in the United States.

Ziegler, along with Baltimore-area residents Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, will be one of the focal points for a U.S. team that dominated last spring's world championships in Australia.

The two-time defending 800-meter freestyle world champion and a candidate to swim the 400 and 200 freestyle and a relay race, Ziegler hopes her first Olympics offers a bushel of medals. (She is a two-time world champion and holds the world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle, which is not contested by female swimmers at the Olympics.)

But first comes another year of early morning and early evening practices, another year of school at George Mason and, finally, the U.S. Olympic trials next summer in Omaha, Neb. Not that the months actually will drag on.

"Three years ago at the trials, we were saying, 'Wow, four years until the next Olympics — that seems so far away,' " Ziegler says. "But now, to be just a year away, time has gone so fast and so much has changed and so much has happened. I feel like this year is going to fly by."

•••

So much has changed. So much has happened.

Sitting deck-side at Lake Newport Pool in Reston last month following an early morning workout with her club team, the Fish, Ziegler knows the drill. Another interview means another request to review her: a) life; b) world record in the 1,500; c) Olympic aspirations; d) out-of-the-pool interests.

A reporter half expects Ziegler to be focused on heading home to Great Falls, eating breakfast and taking a nap before enjoying a rare afternoon off.

Just the opposite happens. She's on anything but auto pilot. The adjectives are descriptive. The background information well delivered. The enthusiasm downright contagious.

"She's very genuine — she's like that with everybody," says her older sister, Anne. "She wants everybody around her to be happy."

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."

•••

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.

"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.

Ziegler first glanced at the scoreboard 450 meters into the race and saw 4:40 and then at 850 meters and saw 8:58.

"I can feel when I'm doing well, and when I looked at the clock, I did the math and figured I was swimming fast," she says. "But then I saw everybody lining up on the side of the pool."

At 800 meters, Benecki looked at his stopwatch, and he knew the record was hers barring disaster.

When one length of the pool remaining, Benecki stopped rooting, stopped checking his stopwatch and just folded his arms.

Ziegler's time — 15 minutes, 42.54 seconds — was nearly 10 seconds faster than Evans' time of 15:52.10.

"It was such a surreal moment," she says. "That had been my dream for so long, and just missing it at worlds, I didn't want to miss it again by just a little bit. When I looked at the clock and saw 15:42, I thought that I couldn't be right. Not only was it a new record by 10 seconds, I had broken my personal record by 11 seconds. That was shocking itself."

Ziegler has long idolized Evans, a four-time gold medalist and the face of the sport in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"It's definitely awesome to break any world record, but Janet Evans is a legend and my hero, and to do something like that was a bonus," Ziegler says.

Evans called Ziegler the next day.

"I was always surprised that my records stood for so long," Evans said in an e-mail. "But a few years ago, I realized that it was only a matter of time before they fell."

•••

A year from the games, Ziegler should be considered the favorite in the 800 freestyle and is the second-ranked American in the 400 free. She also is expected to try the 200 free, which would make her a candidate to swim a relay.

Since 1968, four American women — including Brooke Bennett in 2002 and Evans in 1988 — have swept the 400 and 800 freestyle races.

"Making it in the 800 is probably her best bet because she's so far ahead of the next-closest American [nearly eight seconds at worlds]," Benecki says. "The 400 is a good one but not her safest one, and she's fourth in the U.S. in the 200, which would give her a shot in the relay."

Leading into the Olympics, Ziegler will continue to attend George Mason — she's signed up for nine hours in the fall semester but might add a class so she can live on campus. In the pool, she's headed to Germany in October for a short-course meet and has tentative domestic meets in Minneapolis, Fairfax and College Park.

All of it culminates in the trials June 29 to July 6 and the Olympics on Aug. 8-24.

"I'm feeling very, very confident because I've shown I can swim at the key events at the international level," she says. "Breaking the [1,500] record has been a huge confidence boost. It's been a good six months for me, but there are certainly places I can improve upon. I don't want to be 100 percent right now. I want to peak at the Olympics."

"That's why I get up in the morning."