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.
‘I think we both grew up’
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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