Kate Ziegler has been a swimmer for most of her life. To the outside world, the sport has been her identity. Like other Olympians, she has risen before dawn as far back as she can remember. Like others who have set world records, she has returned in the afternoon for another workout.
And like other professionals, be they in cubicles or pools, she sometimes wrestles with the way she spends her days.
“I go up and down, to be honest,” she said. “There are days when I kind of wonder, like, ‘Man, this is tough.’ But I come back to . . .”
She paused. There is a lot to consider.
“This is . . . I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I love it.” Her voice grew quiet. “But it’s hard to say I love it when sometimes I hate it.” And she laughed.
Ziegler turns 24 next week, and she will spend her birthday at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha rather than at her apartment or her parents’ home, nearby in Great Falls. The pool at what is now known as CenturyLink Center does not hold the happiest of memories for Ziegler, yet it is where she hopes her rekindled passion for swimming — if that’s what it is — resurfaces, even as she finds herself a changed person, both personally and professionally.
“It’s different from 2008,” said Ray Benecki, her lifelong coach. “She was the favorite. Now, she’s in a different role, which is not necessarily good, not necessarily bad. It just is.”
Four years ago, Ziegler, a Bishop O’Connell High grad, was one of the best distance swimmers in the world, from whom medals were expected at the Beijing Games. This summer, her goals are simpler: Make the U.S. Olympic team in at least one of three freestyle events — the 800, 400 and 200 meters — and enjoy the heck out of London.
Ziegler’s occasionally jarring journey between those two cycles ended right where it started: swimming for Benecki, who runs the Fairfax-based club The Fish. The swimmer and coach endured a difficult 2008 in which Ziegler failed to advance to the finals of either the 400- or 800-meter freestyles in Beijing. They endured Ziegler’s initial foray away from home, living and training in California, away from Benecki for the first time. And they are embracing a reunion that came only in February, as Ziegler committed in earnest to another run at the Olympics.
“There’s no predictions,” Benecki said. “We’re trying to be as relaxed as possible.”
Both Ziegler and Benecki use the word “relaxed” independent of each other. It is a contrast to 2008, Ziegler said. Benecki isn’t keen on comparing the two times. Ziegler is introspective.
“I was not happy for a very long time,” she said. “I was not happy at trials. But it was like: Okay, what are you going to do? Just turn around and quit? Which is what I wanted to do in Beijing, too.
“It was a long process. I talked to Ray and was like, ‘I’m not having fun.’ ‘Well, maybe it’s anxiety. Let’s have fun. Let’s have fun.’ But it’s not easy. There is no switch. It’s not that simple. . . . I tried to pretend like it wasn’t there, and that did not work.”
The result, eventually, came in summer 2010, when Ziegler left Virginia for California, left Benecki for renowned Coach Jon Urbanchek, who was training experienced, elite swimmers at a club in Fullerton.
“I think the change was awesome for her,” Urbanchek said. “She needed the change. There was sunshine, new faces, a new environment, a new coach. She drew a tremendous amount of inspiration and motivation from the situation here.”
One realization: She could have input into how she trained. Urbanchek, the longtime head coach at the University of Michigan, was accustomed to coaching college athletes. He wanted, even needed, feedback from his swimmers. Ziegler had never thought to question Benecki, who had coached her since she was a girl.
“I felt like, ‘Oh, that’s disrespectful,’ ” she said.
Emboldened, and with some new understanding of her own preferences, Ziegler won the 800 freestyle at the 2010 Pan Pacific championships. At the 2011 world championships in Shanghai, she took silver in the 1,500-meter freestyle(in which she still holds the world record, though it is not contested at the Olympics) and an encouraging bronze in the 800.
“I kept her afloat,” Urbanchek said. “We didn’t really go forward. But she kind of got her confidence back here.”
Still, she experienced moments when home — and everything about it — felt more comfortable. At the world championships, Ziegler grew nervous before a race. She thought about Benecki and concluded, “Who knows me better than him?”
The ensuing phone conversation calmed her, and she won her medals.
Later that summer, when Ziegler returned to Great Falls for a visit, she swam some with Benecki. She did so again at the holidays. And when it came time to make a decision about where and how to prepare for another Olympic run, she returned to stay.
“I don’t want it to seem like I had no other options so I just fell into this,” Ziegler said. “No. Through a lot of consideration, I just kept coming back to: This is right; this is right for me. I will tell you when I moved, I said: Never again. But Ray is kind of, like, he is a second dad for me. It’s kind of like a kid leaving the nest and being like, ‘Oh, Mom and Dad aren’t so bad.’ ”
Why, though, would the experience be different this time around?
“I think we both grew up,” Ziegler said. “We both matured. He’s much more relaxed, and I think I am too. I’ll be the first to admit that I can get wound up and anxious about things.”
Told Ziegler believed “we both needed a break,” Benecki said: “I never thought about it that way. I just welcomed her back, and we just started doing the work.”
There is no telling what the work will lead to. Seven American swimmers, led by Bethesda 15-year-old Katie Ledecky, have posted faster times in the 800 this year. Only the top two finishers in each event make the American team.
“Her greatest asset is she’s a great competitor,” said Urbanchek, who endorsed Ziegler’s return to work with Benecki. “She’s going to turn it on. She’s got the swim in her.”
That may be true. It may not. Ziegler may swim beyond these Olympics. She may not. She has other interests: interior design, fitness, living her life. What comforts her now, four years after a miserable preparation before a disappointing result, is that the process has been more palatable.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll be okay either way,” she said. “Certainly, my goal is to make the team, to swim really well, and go to London, and more specifically for the Olympics to enjoy the Olympics, and be able to come back home and say, ‘I had a great time.’”
That would be, to this point, something she has not experienced.
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