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For Elite Swimmer, Bittersweet 16

Ziegler's Talent Forces 'These Huge Decisions'

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page D01

If time was all Kate Ziegler had to cut, realizing her Olympic dream would be so simple.

She shears seconds off her 800-meter swimming time so easily that, as a 16-year-old junior at O'Connell High, she already holds a U.S. record. Some insiders call her the most promising American distance swimmer in a generation, a good bet to win at least one medal in the 2008 Olympics.

Bishop O'Connell swimmer Katie Ziegler set an American record in the 800 meters last month. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

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"She could become one of the best distance swimmers ever," said Jon Urbanchek, a talent evaluator for U.S. Swimming, "if she just cuts down on a few more seconds."

But to fulfill such enormous expectations, Kate must also cut down on family vacations, sleepovers with friends and leisure time. In an average week, she spends more than 20 hours in the pool and swims about 50 miles. Free time, as her father put it, is "dinner, homework and some stretching -- all in about an hour and a half."

Her schedule will continue to tighten as the Olympics near, and Kate is unsure how much she is willing to sacrifice. Academics? Friendships? A move to college that would separate her from her current coach?

"Every once in awhile, I have to do a reality check and make sure this is what I want for my life," Kate said. "I never expected to be such a good swimmer, and it's great. But now I have to make these huge decisions."

A single specialty or the broad experiences of American adolescence?

Cathy and Don Ziegler always favored the latter.

They guided their three children -- David, 23; Ann, 21; and Kate -- through several sports, but academics always came before athletics. David graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003. Ann is a junior at the University of Mary Washington.

"Nobody would have expected that we'd have a great athlete in this family," Don said. "It's like a mistaken gene pool or something. We wanted our kids to try everything."

They pushed Kate into swimming before she turned 7, enticing her with a colorful new swimsuit. Hopefully, they agreed, she'd stick with it long enough to learn how not to drown, then move on to something else. Almost 10 years later, they're still waiting for her to try the next activity.

Kate's hectic, one-dimensional schedule baffles her parents. She progressed so quickly -- from swim lessons to swim team to a spot, at 13, on Ray Benecki's elite team, the Fish -- that it seemed too fast. While Cathy and Don are supportive of Kate's swimming goals, they keep a distance.

"We joke," Don said, "that we're just the cooks and the chauffeurs."

Even those jobs can become all-consuming with Kate's schedule. She practices with the Fish at Spring Hill Recreation Center in McLean eight times each week, and those workouts dominate the family schedule.

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