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After Struggles in 2008 Olympics, Kate Ziegler Adjusts Her Expectations

"It wasn't just the Games," Ziegler said. "The Games were just the culmination of it all. It had been building [and] . . . it just hit at that point."

Immediately after Beijing, the last thing Ziegler wanted to do was think about another Olympics. She mostly wanted to escape the one she had just endured. Her mind, however, hung on fitfully, trying to dissect the issue. How did she go from enthusiastic prodigy at 15 to four-time world champion to exhausted underachiever in her first Games? She admits the poor air quality aggravated her asthma in Beijing, but, she said, "that was a small part of the problem."

"Part of [what I felt] was disappointment, part of it was shock," Ziegler said. "I thought, 'How could I swim so poorly? Oh my gosh, it's over. This dream I've been chasing and building, well, there was my shot.' "

Added Ziegler: "I don't blame Ray for my performance at the Olympics. I think there were things he and I can point at [knowing] we could have done that better."

Ziegler considered resuming her training at various points after the Games, but the months wore on, and she just couldn't get in the water.

"I was like, 'I'm not ready,' " Ziegler said. "I knew I had to set kind of a goal date. I wasn't sure if I'd ever be at the point I'd really want to get back in the water and be really excited again.

"It was a totally different thing for me. I had never been to the point where I had seriously considered not swimming."

Benecki, who coaches three other swimmers who qualified for next month's U.S. championships, gave Ziegler plenty of space.

"The physical takes a mental toll," he said. "The mental takes a physical toll. It's all related."

A January training trip to Key Largo, Fla., with the George Mason swim team helped Ziegler ease back in the water, but her attendance was sporadic until May. She is now back to a two-a-day training schedule along with three weekly sessions with a personal trainer. Ziegler hasn't quite regained her old excitement, but she is more at peace and less restless.

She didn't like the idea of letting lingering disappointment drive her out of the sport. That, she knew, would have been the wrong reason to quit.

Yet there remain plenty of days she feels like doing so. She said she spent 45 minutes unloading her latest frustrations on Benecki during a recent practice while everyone else swam.

"I know this is something that's not going to go away in an instant," Ziegler said.

"It's a balance," Benecki said, "and sometimes it's a struggle."

She plans to swim the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles at the national championships, which begin July 7 in Indianapolis and will determine the team that goes to Rome for the July 25-Aug. 2 world championships.

There is something refreshing, she said, about having no idea how she will perform. There might come a time -- not this summer -- to start chasing crazy goals again.

"I went into this year knowing I can't have the expectations I had in the past," Ziegler said. "I want to take care of myself now so I don't get burned out again. . . . I'd love to go to Italy; I'd love to go to the world championships, but I'm just not putting pressure on myself."

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