Kate Ziegler's first acceptance speech lasted less than 30 seconds, but it revealed a broad range of her personality: immature yet endearing, awkward yet charismatic.
Wearing a black formal dress, Ziegler, 17, walked on stage at an opulent ballroom this month and stared out at hundreds of $1,000-a-plate benefactors sampling custom-made, USA Swimming M&Ms. She accepted her trophy -- a Golden Goggle award for the best female race of the year -- and reluctantly approached the microphone.
"I don't have really much to say, because I really didn't think I had much of a chance at all," Ziegler said, her face flushed. "But, okay. I want to thank . . . my family? Yeah. My family. Oh, and my coach, Ray. Thanks to anyone who supported me. Okay. That's all."
The crowd, unsure how to react to such raw surprise during a carefully scripted awards ceremony, stayed silent for almost a full second. Then came warm chuckling. Then heartfelt applause.
"I was pretty relieved," Ziegler said as she sat in the emptying ballroom. "I just felt so nervous. I wanted to get out of the spotlight."
That objective has become increasingly difficult for the distance swimmer from Great Falls. Since Ziegler won gold medals in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle events at the world championships in July, fame and success have thrust her into a series of uncomfortable situations.
Her arduous college decision is mostly behind her -- she'll forgo dozens of scholarship offers from elite programs and instead attend school close to home, probably at George Mason, so she can continue to train with her longtime club coach, Ray Benecki -- but Ziegler feels far from settled. She could decide to swim in college, but swimwear companies hope she'll turn pro instead; USA Swimming officials want to publicize her heavily en route to the 2008 Olympics; Benecki, meantime, has designed an exhaustive practice schedule to make sure Ziegler's times continue to improve.
Ziegler is wedged uncomfortably between two perceptions. To her family, she's a shy, overworked senior at O'Connell High; to the swimming world, she's a budding celebrity, the most promising U.S. distance swimmer in several years.
She hopes to thrive in both roles.
"It's too weird to think about her as a big-time person, a celebrity," said Don Ziegler, Kate's dad. "We have no idea how she got this good. We don't understand. It's like, 'How the hell do we have a two-time world champion?' How do you ever grasp that? As a family, we just have to think of her as Kate, as normal."
For two days in New York, she was treated as anything but. Along with about 30 other elite U.S. swimmers, Ziegler traveled to Manhattan to attend the Golden Goggles, a fundraiser that doubles as American swimming's top awards ceremony. Ziegler was the only swimmer nominated for three awards -- more than such stars as Michael Phelps, Ian Crocker and Katie Hoff.
Ziegler, though, hardly felt comfortable at swimming's biggest gala. She came to New York with her mother, Cathy, and Benecki, who had been nominated -- based on Ziegler's achievements -- for coach of the year. Together, the trio arrived with what it presumed would be a simple goal: slip in and slip out with little fanfare.
"I just want to go," Ziegler said in her Manhattan hotel, "and not be noticed."
Instead, on the night of the awards, she straightened her hair, changed into a black dress she bought before O'Connell's homecoming and walked from her Marriott hotel room straight into the center of attention. USA Swimming asked her to sign 100 posters for sponsors, all showing her picture juxtaposed to one of distance-swimming legend Janet Evans. "Before I had only signed autographs once or twice," Ziegler said, shaking exhaustion out of her right hand. "And I only signed them if a little kid thought I was somebody else."
Next Ziegler proceeded to a photo shoot, where a photographer twisted her into a series of poses while Snoop Dogg's "Drop it Like it's Hot" pumped in the background. Then she was whisked into a long, black limo, which delivered her to a red carpet entrance in front of the ballroom where the Golden Goggles were being held. There, a television journalist pulled her aside for a quick interview.
"How does it feel," he asked, "to suddenly be famous in New York City?"
Ziegler paused and looked to her side, where about a dozen other elite swimmers stood and listened in.
"It's pretty strange," she finally said. "This all feels like way too much."
Too Many Demands
Way too much. It's what Benecki had long feared. Too many distractions, too many variables, too many demands on a schedule that can't handle anything but absolute consistency.
According to Benecki, coach of a club team called the Fish, the last several months have been the most trying of Ziegler's career. College visits, national attention and award ceremonies yanked her in a dozen different directions -- none of them involving a pool.
"Before she was just a swimmer," Benecki said. "Now she has to swim and do all this other stuff. It's not like any swimming time can be sacrificed."
Instead, it's sleep, or occasionally schoolwork, that become the victims of Ziegler's schedule. She still practices with Benecki eight times a week and supplements those workouts with physical therapy and Pilates.
On the rare occasion swimming is sacrificed, the sometimes-delicate balance between Benecki (a swimming die-hard) and Ziegler's parents (swimming novices) tips violently. During Ziegler's annual three-week break in August, the entire family spent a week at a remote cabin. Benecki wanted Ziegler to swim at least every other day. With no pool nearby, Ziegler almost never swam.
"That was a major setback," Benecki said. "They learned the hard way that they can't do that anymore. You can take a vacation, sure, but swimming has to be a part of it. She came back out of shape and tired. I think they'll pick a better place to vacation next time."
When Ziegler goes out of town now, she finds time to practice regardless. Ziegler and her mom had hoped to go to New York early for the Golden Goggles, maybe to catch a Broadway show. Instead, they took a later train with Benecki because the coach held a long, exhausting Sunday practice. Ziegler spent most of her train ride complaining of hunger and soreness.
At least, Ziegler figured, the Golden Goggles would provide a day off -- but then that disappeared, too. In between an awards-show rehearsal and the photo shoot, Ziegler and Benecki took a 30-minute cab ride to a pool and squeezed in a full practice. Cathy, who had hoped to spend the afternoon shopping with her daughter, walked back to the hotel alone.
With 30 other elite swimmers in the city, only Ziegler spent her afternoon in the pool.
"No matter what, she's always the last one out of the water," Benecki said hours after the New York practice.
"Yeah," said Ziegler, standing nearby, "that's because you keep me there like 500 million hours."
"Well it works, doesn't it?" Benecki said.
To that, Ziegler had no response. It was Benecki's ultimate trump card, the endpoint to every argument about scheduling or commitment. His practices -- exhaustively demanding, infuriatingly inflexible -- had produced nearly unparalleled results, transforming Ziegler from a little-known 15-year-old to a 17-year-old phenom.
Unwilling to disrupt such rapid improvement, Ziegler had decided -- initially against her parents' instincts -- to stay near home for college and train with Benecki instead of accepting a swimming scholarship to a top NCAA program.
"We sort of had to let go of some of the visions we had for her, because when we had those visions she wasn't this good," Cathy said. "She knew being with Ray was very important. We've been a little slower to get there than she was."
Little else about Ziegler's future has been determined. Two swimwear companies -- Speedo and TYR -- have made at least preliminary pitches to persuade Ziegler to turn pro and give up her NCAA eligibility. If she decides to do that, she'll likely also attend George Mason solely as a student.
"There's still a lot of stuff to figure out," Benecki said. "Until all of it is behind her, she's going to be a little distracted. She's in a phase right now where there are a lot of demands on her time."
An Abrupt Transition
Other swimmers who have been through similar transitions, whose success has brought increased notoriety, say there's only one way to handle the shift:
Grow up. Fast.
That's what Katie Hoff did. The 16-year-old from Towson, Md., won two medals at the 2004 Olympic Games and now, she said, she's "acting like a professional." For her one guest at the Golden Goggles, she brought her agent, whom she signed with last month.
"My family decided I needed an agent now," Hoff said. "I didn't want people to think I was, like, a little kid. I'm a professional now, so I wanted that image."
Said Natalie Coughlin, who won five medals (two golds) in Athens last year: "When you get known, swimming becomes something different. You've got to know how to act all the time. You've got to be professional in public. It's hard, and it took me some time, but you basically have to smooth everything over a little bit. You have to act like a public person who people know."
To Ziegler, though, renown and real life remain distinctly separate realms, even if she occasionally tries to fuse them. After she spoke at the Golden Goggles in front of a crowd that included New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, gymnast Shannon Miller and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Ziegler felt important enough to float a daring idea. Maybe tonight, Ziegler suggested to her mother and coach, she could go out in New York with friends and other swimmers.
"What do you think, mom?" she asked. "They're going to some place called Club Bungalow. Can I go?"
Cathy shook her head. "You're only 17," she said. "I think we'd better go to Club Marriott instead."
It was the answer Ziegler had expected, so she turned back to a conversation with a friend at their table in the emptying ballroom.
A moment later, Stu Isaac, the senior vice president of marketing at Speedo, stopped by the table to talk to Benecki and Ziegler, who had visited Speedo's New York showroom earlier in the day. Isaac congratulated Ziegler on her Golden Goggle award, but the topic quickly turned from the swimmer's present to her future.
"I can see it now," Benecki said to Isaac. "You'll have Kate walking into a closet filled with [swim] suits."
"I like that," Isaac said. "I can see that being a nice ad."