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.
As for Hoff's victory in the 400? "It was," Hoff said, "pure relief."
For both, making the Pan Pac team seemed to bring a welcome conclusion to what had been an agonizing Olympic and post-Olympic experience. Dubbed "The Female Michael Phelps" entering the Beijing Games, Hoff won a silver and two bronze medals in her five events, but felt she had let her country down by missing out on a gold. Ziegler, meantime, not only did not live up to frequent comparisons to swim legend Janet Evans, she also did not qualify for the finals of her two events.
After the Games, Hoff promptly left her longtime coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Paul Yetter, to train with Michael Phelps's coach Bob Bowman. She and Bowman never meshed, and Hoff felt overtaxed by Bowman's demanding ways. At last summer's U.S. championships, she finished sixth in the 400 freestyle and eighth in the 200 before withdrawing from the 100 and 800.
As Hoff's mental and physical exhaustion grew, Ziegler enrolled in classes at George Mason University and struggled to find enthusiasm even to return to the water. She pondered quitting but eventually decided to participate in a reduced training program with her longtime coach Ray Benecke of the FISH in McLean. Her erratic training and slow times suggested she would struggle to make the 2009 world championship team; a bout with the flu kept her from even attempting to qualify.
So it was that the most acclaimed American female swimmers at the previous world championships didn't make the squad that went to Rome last year.
At the end of the summer, Hoff decided to join Hutchison's burgeoning group of female stars, including Ariana Kukors and Margaret Hoelzer. Hoff rented an apartment with best friend and '08 Olympian Caroline Burckle, enrolled in college classes at nearby Chapman University and got to work, but found the change of scenery did not produce the immediate change in spirit she had hoped.
"I figured I would move and would be a whole different, newer, happier person," Hoff said. "It didn't happen that way . . . I was trying so hard for things to be so perfect out here; it was kind of forced."
Ziegler, meantime, gave sprint training a try under Benecki to see if the change of pace would re-ignite her enthusiasm for the sport. But by the spring, she reached the conclusion Hoff had reached a half a year before: She needed to start fresh. Urbanchek persuaded her to join a small group of mostly male distance swimmers at FAST for something of a summer session, to see how she liked it. The group trained twice a day, before and after Hutchison's speed team completed its lone daily practice.
Ziegler, who stayed in the home of a local family, liked it. She is planning to make a permanent move after the Pan Pacific Championships.
The first part of the summer "was fun, and I enjoyed it," Ziegler said. "I'm a trainer at heart. I came out here and was really excited to get back into good, solid training."
Hoff did not know Ziegler decided to join the group until after she arrived just under two months ago. The two were more rivals than friends as the 2008 Olympics approached, but their relationship has taken a positive turn.
They recently got together for lunch and talked not just about apartment-hunting, but also dream-chasing, Hoff said. They found, quite naturally, that they had much in common.
"We've become closer," Hoff said. "In 2008, it was kind of a rough year between us because of the Kate vs. Katie thing. When I started swimming the 800, I think it messed with our relationship a bit. It was good to get together and talk to her. We were both put in the spotlight at an early age. . . . I think we've both been emotionally tired."
And now, they are both on the rebound. Not surprisingly, Hoff and Ziegler experienced something of a mental and physical turnaround at precisely the same meet.
At the July 8-11 Los Angeles Grand Prix, Hoff won the 400 freestyle (4:06.21) and set a meet record in the process. Ziegler won the 800 - beating U.S. champion Chloe Sutton - in 8:25.89. Hoff added a victory in the 200 freestyle in 1:57.58, and Ziegler was elated to finish third in 1:59.77 that race, considering it is not a specialty for her.
"I had surprisingly good swims in all of my races," Ziegler said. "My 800 was especially surprising."
Hoff, too, was pleased. Finally making some progress, going forward instead of back, felt great. The grin she wore after her victory was duly noted.
"She definitely is a lot happier," her training mate Kukors said. "It's great to see her smiling again when she's done racing."
Hoff and Ziegler say they are committed - at least as committed as they have been since Beijing - to competing through 2012. Both would like another shot at an Olympic Games.
"I didn't want to go out in the sport having the sport beat me," Hoff said. "I wanted to go out on my own terms."