Ziegler Was on the Mark Before Meet

Kate Ziegler
Kate Ziegler reacts to her record-setting time in the 1,500-meter freestyle. "I am so honored to have been able to break it," the Great Falls native said. (Kristen Boisen - AP)
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

When Kate Ziegler broke the oldest record in swimming by 9 1/2 seconds Sunday night, she may have surprised many in the swimming community, but she did not startle her teammates and coaches in the slightest.

You see, in the three weeks leading up to the TYR Meet of Champions in Mission Viejo, Calif., Ziegler trained with the U.S. national team in Colorado Springs, and it was there that one of the team physiologists predicted Ziegler would swim fast enough to break the world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle, a mark that had been held by Janet Evans since 1988.

"There really wasn't much doubt in my mind," said U.S. national team coach Mark Schubert, who was poolside for the history-making event. "I knew she was on her way to an impressive swim."

Less foreseeable was the dominant way in which Ziegler, a native of Great Falls, would break the record. When Evans set the record in 1988 in Orlando, she completed the 30-lap race in 15 minutes 52.10 seconds. Evans was the first woman to break 16 minutes in the event.

When Ziegler, 18, clocked in Sunday night, she did so in 15:42.54, the second time in three months she had broken the 16-minute mark. "It may have been predicted, but it still came as a total shock to me," she said. The win was her fourth of the meet, after the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle titles.

"Anytime you break a record that old by that phenomenal of an athlete [Evans] is significant," said former U.S. Olympic coach Richard Quick, who coached Evans at Stanford University from 1989 to '91. "The fact that she broke it by almost 10 seconds is almost unbelievable."

Quick, who now is the coach at Auburn, said Ziegler and Evans are completely different athletes. Whereas Evans was slight in build, Ziegler is more buff. Whereas Evans's stroke was unorthodox, Ziegler's is more standard.

The one thing Quick said both swimmers have in common is an engine that won't quit, a statement Ziegler justified during her record-breaking performance. Her 400-meter split was 4:09.87, or four seconds slower than her winning time Friday in the event. Her 800-meter split was 8:22.57, or two seconds faster than her winning time in the event Thursday.

"I usually take my races out hard and then fade away a little bit at the end," Ziegler said. "I didn't know I was swimming faster while I was going, but I did feel strong all the way through."

Fortunately for the crowd and her coaches, everyone outside the water was made well aware of what they were witnessing. "The announcer did a great job" of comparing Ziegler's splits to those of the world record, Schubert said. "She essentially was swimming by herself. She more than lapped the person who came in second place."

Ziegler had approached the record in March at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, where she finished in 15:53.05, then the second-fastest time in the event's history. That designation now belongs to Evans.

"The 1,500 has always been one of my favorites and to have such a terrific swimmer and person like Kate break my record, at the same age that I did, was terrific," Evans said in a prepared statement released yesterday. "In a sport where records are broken in hundredths of a second, you would have to consider Kate's swim in the 1,500 one of the greatest swims ever."

But for all the attention the record is drawing, Ziegler's mark will not be a prelude to Olympic glory -- the race is not an Olympic event for women. "I'm a little bit bitter about that," Schubert said. "To me, it's just degrading. Swimming ought to get it together."

Both Schubert and Quick pointed out that track and field incorporated the women's marathon into the Olympics in 1984. Over two decades later, swimming has not done the same for its longest event. Men can vie for Olympic gold in the 1,500, while the longest distance women swim at the Olympics is the 800.

"It is definitely disappointing, because the 1,500 is one of my best events," Ziegler said. "I would love for it to be an Olympic event, but I don't have control over that."

One thing over which she does have control is the world record formerly held by one of her idols. Evans "held that record for 19 years, and it's clear how amazing that record is by how long it lasted," Ziegler said. "I am so honored to have been able to break it. I am so proud that all my hard work paid off."

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