The Glare of Gold

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

NEW YORK -- Kate Ziegler's first acceptance speech lasted less than 30 seconds, but it revealed a broad range of her personality: immature yet endearing, awkward yet charismatic.

Wearing a black formal dress, Ziegler, 17, walked on stage at an opulent ballroom this month and stared out at hundreds of $1,000-a-plate benefactors sampling custom-made, USA Swimming M&Ms. She accepted her trophy -- a Golden Goggle award for the best female race of the year -- and reluctantly approached the microphone.

"I don't have really much to say, because I really didn't think I had much of a chance at all," Ziegler said, her face flushed. "But, okay. I want to thank . . . my family? Yeah. My family. Oh, and my coach, Ray. Thanks to anyone who supported me. Okay. That's all."

The crowd, unsure how to react to such raw surprise during a carefully scripted awards ceremony, stayed silent for almost a full second. Then came warm chuckling. Then heartfelt applause.

"I was pretty relieved," Ziegler said as she sat in the emptying ballroom. "I just felt so nervous. I wanted to get out of the spotlight."

That objective has become increasingly difficult for the distance swimmer from Great Falls. Since Ziegler won gold medals in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle events at the world championships in July, fame and success have thrust her into a series of uncomfortable situations.

Her arduous college decision is mostly behind her -- she'll forgo dozens of scholarship offers from elite programs and instead attend school close to home, probably at George Mason, so she can continue to train with her longtime club coach, Ray Benecki -- but Ziegler feels far from settled. She could decide to swim in college, but swimwear companies hope she'll turn pro instead; USA Swimming officials want to publicize her heavily en route to the 2008 Olympics; Benecki, meantime, has designed an exhaustive practice schedule to make sure Ziegler's times continue to improve.

Ziegler is wedged uncomfortably between two perceptions. To her family, she's a shy, overworked senior at O'Connell High; to the swimming world, she's a budding celebrity, the most promising U.S. distance swimmer in several years.

She hopes to thrive in both roles.

"It's too weird to think about her as a big-time person, a celebrity," said Don Ziegler, Kate's dad. "We have no idea how she got this good. We don't understand. It's like, 'How the hell do we have a two-time world champion?' How do you ever grasp that? As a family, we just have to think of her as Kate, as normal."

For two days in New York, she was treated as anything but. Along with about 30 other elite U.S. swimmers, Ziegler traveled to Manhattan to attend the Golden Goggles, a fundraiser that doubles as American swimming's top awards ceremony. Ziegler was the only swimmer nominated for three awards -- more than such stars as Michael Phelps, Ian Crocker and Katie Hoff.

Ziegler, though, hardly felt comfortable at swimming's biggest gala. She came to New York with her mother, Cathy, and Benecki, who had been nominated -- based on Ziegler's achievements -- for coach of the year. Together, the trio arrived with what it presumed would be a simple goal: slip in and slip out with little fanfare.

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