Many Tasks, Little Time

kate ziegler - swimming prodigy
For the first time in her career, Kate Ziegler has stopped improving at a breakneck pace. She remains the United States' premier freestyle distance swimmer, but her times have stagnated. (Jonathan Newton - The Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006

IRVINE, Calif. The stresses of the past year have caught up with Kate Ziegler like no swimmer ever could. She tires easily now and gets sick more often. At a meet here last weekend, her body felt like a weight she dragged through the water. Each race indicated a setback, and Ziegler climbed out of the pool wearing a worn look of frustration.

In the last 10 months, the 17-year-old condensed enough activity and excitement to fill a decade. She visited colleges, spent a few weeks in Asia, spoke at two major award banquets, completed her senior year at O'Connell High in Arlington and signed a professional contract with Speedo -- a whirlwind of activity that required a costly sacrifice.

For the first time in her career, Ziegler has stopped improving at a breakneck pace. She remains the United States' premier freestyle distance swimmer, but her times have stagnated. The decisions that marked her senior year required too much time out of the water and tipped her unforgiving training schedule off-balance, leaving Ziegler to face a daunting challenge. During her first few months as a professional, Ziegler must limit her focus to training in order to thrive during a crucial summer in her progression toward the 2008 Olympics.

"It's kind of frustrating to be on this plan and have everything go perfect and then you're sort of back where you were," said Ray Benecki, Ziegler's coach. "You just have to figure out the problem, then figure out how to fix it."

The problem, Ziegler said, boils down to a singular fact: "I'm a really bad decision-maker," she said.

Too nice to answer any request with a flat, "no," Ziegler sacrificed her own limited time and energy during the last year to avoid hurting feelings. She weighed tens of scenarios before deciding in March to give up her college eligibility, sign a professional contract with Speedo and attend George Mason as a regular student. Along the way, dozens of suitors wanted her time -- and she gave it away freely.

Last summer while she considered swimming in college instead of turning professional, Ziegler talked on the phone for 90 minutes with coaches from colleges she had zero interest in attending. She visited Georgia and Florida in the fall, even though she felt almost positive she would turn professional and stay close to her home in Great Falls.

At Benecki's insistence, Ziegler eventually asked all colleges interested in her to fill out a lengthy questionnaire before calling or visiting. It detracted from her training to expend so much energy out of the pool, Ziegler explained apologetically to colleges. Then she continued to talk with coaches who said filling out the questionnaire would take too much time.

Each painstaking, time-consuming decision Ziegler faced led to another, and she sometimes felt lost in an endless maze. Should she stay home and train with Benecki or go away to college? What college would she want to attend? Would she swim for her school or turn professional? Which swimwear company would she represent? Which agent would represent her?

"It was definitely really hard, and at times I just wanted to throw my hands in the air and say: 'Whatever. Somebody just make a decision for me,' " said Ziegler, who will start at George Mason in August. "I wouldn't change anything about the way it turned out, but sometimes it was just too much."

Ziegler struggled most to decide between Tyr and Speedo. Each company made initial contract offers in September, then steadily doubled those offers over the next several months. By March, Tyr and Speedo wanted Ziegler to sign a seven-year contract with guaranteed annual earnings that approached six figures and could escalate with incentives. "The money was never an issue for her," said Evan Morganstein, Ziegler's agent. "She wanted something more."

For almost two full months, Ziegler debated whether she wanted to be the No. 1 endorser for small-but-growing Tyr or one of several stars for Speedo, swimwear's juggernaut. She missed a weekend practice to travel to Long Island and visit the company showroom; she talked often on the phone with Speedo Senior Vice President Stu Isaac. "You had a feeling she really put a lot of focus into that decision," Isaac said. "She wanted to chose carefully."

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