Kate Ziegler got shunted to Lane 1 of Tuesday night's 1,500-meter freestyle final at the 2005 swimming world championships after a poor swim in her qualifying heat. Nervousness, she admitted, infected that performance. After Monday's race, drenched with chlorinated water, frustration and dissatisfaction, Ziegler did not look at all like an emerging world champion.
The Bishop O'Connell High senior-to-be who turned 17 a month ago, in fact, seemed to be spiraling into a downer of a meet she would one day blame on inexperience.
But when the starting gun went off Tuesday night, Ziegler looked far different from the anxious teenager who barely secured a spot in the final. One could say she looked a lot like the Kate Ziegler who broke a 25-year-old American record in the 800 free this May. Or one could say, with precious little exaggeration, that she strongly resembled distance-swimming legends Janet Evans and Hannah Stockbauer of Germany.
Ziegler, swimming in her first world championships, didn't merely dominate Tuesday's final from the start, claiming the gold medal with a victory in 16 minutes 0.41 second, more than four seconds faster than Switzerland's Flavia Rigamonti (16:04.34). She also posted the third-fastest time in history, a mark bettered only by the world record Evans set in 1988 (15:52.10) and the world-championship performance of Stockbauer in 2003 (16.00.18).
Her victory, which improved upon her qualifying effort by no less than 26 seconds, headlined a night at Jean-Drapeau Park that featured the first individual gold here for Michael Phelps, who crushed the field in the 200 freestyle, winning in 1:45.20.
"Yesterday my race felt awful," Ziegler said. "I knew that just wasn't the way I usually swim it. [Tuesday night] I was trying to stay confident and set the nerves aside."
For that reason, she welcomed Lane 1, considered undesirable by most swimmers because it inhibits their view of the field, particularly the strongest athletes who are placed in the middle. Those in the outside lanes tend to feel stranded away from the action, as if on islands by themselves.
Ziegler experienced that sensation precisely -- and couldn't have been more pleased given her fragile mental state the day before.
"I was actually kind of glad to be in Lane 1," she said. "I could just be in my own little world and be more confident."
Ziegler, who resides in Great Falls, said she sought advice from her coach, Ray Benecki, and other U.S. team coaches on the pool deck in the morning. How could she rebound from such a feeble start, when she swam 15 seconds slower than her best time in the event? Everyone, she said, advised her to pretend she was just out for a typical swim. Forget the stakes, focus on the race.
And so she went out at her usual blinding pace, and withstood a late challenge from Rigamonti, who claimed her first world championship silver in this event in 2001. After Ziegler expanded her lead in eight of the nine first laps, Rigamonti moved up over the last 500 meters. But despite narrowing the margin from 5.39 seconds to 3.85 seconds at 1,400 meters, Rigamonti could not overtake Ziegler.
"I gave it a shot," Rigamonti said. "It didn't work. I was hoping she wouldn't finish that strong. . . . Kate is really a very special girl."
Rigamonti, who trains at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said she was satisfied with her effort given a bicycle accident in June 2003 that left her with two broken arms, unable to swim for months. Rigamonti, who broke one elbow and needed surgery to repair a dislocation in the other, said she was thrilled to swim a personal best Tuesday night.
Though this has been a breakout season for Ziegler, she, too, encountered some problems on the way to this meet. Her asthma had been so aggravated by the pollen and other allergens she was exposed to after her home club -- the Fish -- moved outdoors for training that she consulted with a breathing specialist, who sent her here with a half-dozen bottles of medication. She and Benecki knew she hadn't prepared perfectly for this meet.
"I just tried to put all the trials and tribulations aside," Ziegler said.
That included those that beset her during Monday's heat. Rigamonti had overtaken her in that race. Ziegler wasn't going to let that happen again.
"I always try to take it out hard," Ziegler said. "That's the way I've always swum it. . . . Every time I saw someone, I was just like, 'You can't let them catch you!' "