OMAHA, Neb. — There was a time when Kate Ziegler would have been one of the main attractions here, when the eyes staring from the seats at CenturyLink Center would have found her as she stretched on the pool deck, when her heat would have been an event rather than a formality. That time was eight years ago.
On Tuesday morning, Ziegler stepped to the starting blocks rather anonymously, a 28-year-old woman with little chance of reaching the Olympics for the third time. In the sixth of 11 preliminary heats of the 200-meter freestyle, she stepped to the blocks in Lane 1, and swam for the strangest of reasons: fun.
“I’m really, really glad I came back,” Ziegler said.
Eight years ago, when she arrived at this same building, Ziegler was a world-record holder, the best female distance swimmer in the world. She grew up in Great Falls, Va., swam with her local club, The Fish, under coach Ray Benecki, and took down Janet Evans’s world record in the 1,500-meter freestyle that had stood for nearly two decades.
Along the way, she wrestled with her relationship with the sport, with the expectations both inside and out. A young upstart named Katie Hoff overtook her in both the 400 and 800 freestyles at the Olympic trials in 2008 (the 1,500 isn’t contested for women at the Olympics), and though Ziegler made the team, she didn’t reach the finals, let alone medal.
Four years later, as she prepared for one more go at the London Games, she said of swimming: “It’s hard to say I love it when sometimes I hate it.” In the moment, her disappointments overshadowed her accomplishments.
“I think that’s kind of like everything in life, particularly in hindsight,” she said here Tuesday. “I was talking to someone, and they’re like, ‘You held a world record. That means you’re the greatest that ever walked.’ I guess that’s kind of a big deal. We’re always looking for the next thing, and this last year and a half has provided me the opportunity to say, ‘What am I doing right now? What can I be grateful for?’ ”
After London, Ziegler gave up swimming for two full years. She eventually got back in the water at home, just to feel it again, but then went away for a month to travel to Australia and New Zealand. When she came back to the States, she decided two things: That she would move to Knoxville, Tenn., and she would swim again, training with the Tennessee Aquatics club.
It was, she said, a “gut feeling,” though there is more to it than that, because Ziegler has a strong spiritual faith. She said, ultimately: “I felt led to come back, and I didn’t know why.”
“I just felt like there was something left for me in the sport,” Ziegler said. “Not necessarily a medal or another Olympics, but there was just something left.”
So here she was Tuesday morning, taking to the pool with a qualifying time of 2 minutes, 1.39 seconds — nearly seven full seconds behind the time of Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky, the phenom who once considered Ziegler an idol. Whatever the result, the 200 would be Ziegler’s only event here. No more interminable laps or unsustainable workloads of the distance events.
“I wanted to play,” Ziegler said, smiling. “I have spent a lot of time staring at that black line going back and forth. And I wanted to see what did it look like to change my stroke and my technique and my training approach, and what can I do?”
What she could do, on Tuesday: a swim of 2:04.44 that placed her 86th of 105 swimmers who took to the pool, nearly nine seconds off Ledecky’s pace. Eight years ago, that would have been crushing. Now, it’s just part of her day.
“Look, it’s really fun to swim fast,” Ziegler said. “And part of this journey has been re-evaluating where swimming belongs in my life. It no longer defines me. I know who I am, and I don’t need to be validated by my swimming. But, my times haven’t been where they were at, so it’s not quite as fun from that competitive side. But it’s the pursuit of mastery of something [that] is fun.”
So nearly as quickly as it began, Ziegler’s meet was over. No tears. Just a grin. In August, she will not go to the Olympics. Rather, she will start in the MBA program at the University of Tennessee. When she does, she will do so with a better sense of what she once was.
“I think I didn’t give myself enough credit at the time,” Ziegler said. “Not just a record-setting performer, you were a competitor and a champion in the true sense — respected the people who came before me, respected the people I was racing. I just wish I, in the moment, had been able to give myself a little more respect, like, ‘You were good, girl!’ ”