Ziegler's the Big Fish in O'Connell's Pool

"I'm with all of my friends, it's senior year and we all get to have a blast," said O'Connell's Kate Ziegler, left, cheering teammates here with Lauren Bryan. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Kate Ziegler stopped twice on her walk to the starting block, rubbed her stomach and bent over, as if poised to throw up. Then she steadied herself against a wall and leaned delicately into her starting position, bracing to swim a race teammates guessed she would never finish.

For the past four days, Ziegler had hardly felt capable of walking, much less swimming several hundred meters in a high school meet. A violent stomach flu had chained her to bed and cut about six pounds from her already lean frame, leaving her pale and emaciated for this Feb. 11 meet at George Mason University. She'd felt like vomiting a half dozen times on her way to the pool.

"She probably shouldn't be swimming," her dad, Don Ziegler, said. "She'll be lucky to get through the whole race without getting sick."

In the pool, Ziegler thought the same. Her head felt light; her legs felt heavy. The pool seemed longer than normal. She ran out of steam halfway through her race.

And she won. By almost a lap.

Even on Ziegler's worst days, high school swimming has ceased to challenge the O'Connell senior who won two gold medals at the 2005 World Championships. When Ziegler swims in Metros, the area's biggest high school meet and her final appearance for the Knights, her toughest competition will be Janet Evans's national high school mark of 4 minutes 37.30 seconds in the 500-meter freestyle, which she has bettered in club meets but never with O'Connell. The two-day event begins today at the Germantown Indoor Swim Center; Ziegler's 500 final will be tomorrow afternoon.

At a time when some elite swimmers dismiss high school competition as pedantic, Ziegler made O'Connell's team a priority. Swimwear companies offered Ziegler lucrative bonuses to sign a contract in November or December, her family said, but she decided to wait so she could keep her amateur status through her senior season. Even if high school swimming provided her with little competition, she decided, it gave her too much else to give up.

"I'm with all of my friends, it's senior year and we all get to have a blast," Ziegler said. "I'm not sure swimming will ever be this fun."

Swimming, though, has little to do with it. At O'Connell's most exciting meets, Ziegler expends more energy out of the water than she does in it. Before a meet against rival Good Counsel in late January, Ziegler and two other captains gathered about 30 swimmers in the water after warm-ups for a chanting session. Ziegler splashed her teammates and screamed the school's name for 12 ear-shattering minutes before collapsing into a chair at the side of the pool, her actual event 30 minutes away.

"After all that, I don't know how she even swims," O'Connell Coach Evan Stiles said. "She loves team spirit. She goes crazy for it."

Amongst teammates, Ziegler has developed a reputation for her reactions. She responds with nonchalance to her own accomplishments, but if a less skilled teammate has a breakthrough swim and comes in third or fourth?

"She'll mob you," sophomore Caitlin Marsilii said. "She cares more about what other people do than what she does. It gets the whole team pumped up. She just loves O'Connell more than anybody I know."

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