Katie Hoff, Kate Ziegler begin comebacks at Pan Pacific Swimming Championships

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 11:19 AM

A half dozen years back, the two girls from swimming clubs in Virginia and Maryland were the talk of the sport. They were teen sensations. Pool prodigies.

Towson's Katie Hoff and Great Falls' Kate Ziegler signed professional contracts before they earned their high school diplomas. They established themselves as the best in the world at their craft before they could drive their family cars. They won five world titles between them in 2007.

But in the aftermath of an exhausting run-up to a shockingly disappointing 2008 Summer Games for both, Hoff and Ziegler succumbed to burnout, pondered retirement and completely disappeared from the international scene.

Now, with the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships kicking off Wednesday in Irvine, both are back, having earned spots on the U.S. national team that will face squads from 21 countries including Australia, Japan and Canada.

Hoff's and Ziegler's comebacks have been marked by halting steps forward, slower times, and the pursuit of happiness. They have reordered priorities, changed coaches, moved across the country and dramatically adjusted their goals.

And, though they've never been close friends, their quests for fulfillment have landed them at the same swimming center in Fullerton, Calif. Both have been training with the USA Swimming-sponsored FAST team run by coach Sean Hutchison and longtime University of Michigan coach Jon Urbanchek.

Though each is still trying to figure out where she fits into the world of competitive swimming, and where competitive swimming fits in the rest of her life, both are very, very pleased to be competing at the sport's highest levels again - if not quite up to their old standards.

"I'm getting there," Hoff, 21, said by phone from the U.S. team's training camp in Irvine last week. "Obviously I don't feel like I'm 100 percent back to where I eventually want to be, but I feel like it's been a big step for me not only in time, but also mentally."

Said Ziegler, 22, during a separate interview: "I'm happier than I've been in a very long time with swimming. I'm letting go of a lot of that pressure that I felt before the Olympics; I'm letting go of all of that anxiety."

Both will swim in a number of events at the Pan Pacs. Hoff claimed her place on the team with a victory in the 400 freestyle, finishing first in 4 minutes, 5.50 seconds, a time tied for fourth-fastest in the world this year - but well off her 2008 personal best of 4:02.20, which remains the American record. She will also compete this week in the 100 and 200 freestyle and the 200 individual medley.

Ziegler, meantime, got second in the 800 freestyle, securing her spot with that finish. Her time of 8:28.14 would have been good enough to win a U.S. title last year, but it fell nearly 10 seconds behind the personal best she achieved as a world champion in 2007. She is also entered in the 400 and 1,500 freestyles.

Even so, when Ziegler touched the wall in the 800, she thought "Oh, thank God," she said.

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