The reality of the Olympic Games last summer bore no resemblance to the dreams that guided Kate Ziegler for many of her 20 years. When Ziegler arrived in Beijing as a gold-medal favorite, she did not feel like competing. She felt like leaving. Physically, she was tired. Emotionally, she was dead to the excitement.
This, she thought, was a fine time for a breakdown.
Even months later, Ziegler, who turns 21 June 27, still doesn’t know quite what happened. Other U.S. swimmers excelled. They swam fast and won medals and spewed elation. For Ziegler, the most enjoyable part of her Olympic experience came when the swimming competition concluded and she was free to travel to the Great Wall and escape the pool.
In the event in which she has won two straight world titles, the 800 meters, Ziegler finished 10th. In the 400, in which she is the ninth-fastest performer in history, she was 14th.
“Last year was a really tough year,” said Ziegler, who resides in Great Falls and attended Bishop O’Connell High. “By the time I got to the Olympics, I was just so drained and burned out from swimming. I didn’t even want to swim. ….. I was like, ‘I just want to go home and take a break.’.”
Ziegler took a break that spanned five months, refreshing herself with a trip to Spain and immersion in her communications and nutrition classes at George Mason University. Now she is back in the pool and, to some extent, nothing has changed. She still trains with Ray Benecki and The Fish in McLean, still has her focus on distance events (she is also the reigning world champion in the 1,500 meters, a distance not offered for women in the Olympics) and last weekend opened her 2009 season at the TYR Swim Meet of Champions in Mission Viejo, Calif.
But she now takes one day off each week, instead of training every day. She has sketched out fewer goals — none, actually, at the moment. She is taking everything more slowly. Her results prove it. In Mission Viejo, where she set her 1,500 world record of 15 minutes 42.44 seconds two years ago, Ziegler earned second-place finishes in the 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 races, finishing well below her personal bests. In the 1,500, Ziegler touched the wall in 16:40.19.
“It’s totally different this year,” Benecki said. “Not in terms of the training, but in terms of the expectations.”
The reconsidered pace comes in part by necessity — Ziegler simply isn’t in the shape she was last year at this time — and in part from good sense. She doesn’t want to send herself reeling again. But Ziegler, who for years has swum 11,000 yards daily, knows better than anyone that swimming isn’t a great sport for partial commitments. Whether she can muster a run to the 2012 Summer Games in London is a huge question.
Whether she even wants to is another.
“I don’t know what the future holds for me,” said Ziegler, whose interests range from interior decorating to psychology. “As I grow older, it’s a different dynamic. ….. I really cannot honestly say I know what I’ll be doing in the next three years. I’m taking it more one year at a time — one month at a time.”
Ziegler completely dominated the distance events in the years before Beijing, drawing comparisons to the legendary Janet Evans and emerging as one of the most prominent U.S. stars. At 17, she broke two of Evans’s records and turned pro, relinquishing her collegiate eligibility to sign a deal with Speedo through 2012. Considered virtually a lock to take home a medal in the 800, she was among NBC’s featured athletes.
“It wasn’t just the Games,” Ziegler said. “The Games were just the culmination of it all. It had been building [and] ….. it just hit at that point.”
Immediately after Beijing, the last thing Ziegler wanted to do was think about another Olympics. She mostly wanted to escape the one she had just endured. Her mind, however, hung on fitfully, trying to dissect the issue. How did she go from enthusiastic prodigy at 15 to four-time world champion to exhausted underachiever in her first Games? She admits the poor air quality aggravated her asthma in Beijing, but, she said, “that was a small part of the problem.”
“Part of [what I felt] was disappointment, part of it was shock,” Ziegler said. “I thought, ‘How could I swim so poorly? Oh my gosh, it’s over. This dream I’ve been chasing and building, well, there was my shot.’.”
Added Ziegler: “I don’t blame Ray for my performance at the Olympics. I think there were things he and I can point at [knowing] we could have done that better.”
Ziegler considered resuming her training at various points after the Games, but the months wore on, and she just couldn’t get in the water.
“I was like, ‘I’m not ready,’.” Ziegler said. “I knew I had to set kind of a goal date. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be at the point I’d really want to get back in the water and be really excited again.
“It was a totally different thing for me. I had never been to the point where I had seriously considered not swimming.”
Benecki, who coaches three other swimmers who qualified for the U.S. championships, gave Ziegler plenty of space.
“The physical takes a mental toll,” he said. “The mental takes a physical toll. It’s all related.”
A January training trip to Key Largo, Fla., with the George Mason swim team helped Ziegler ease back in the water, but her attendance was sporadic until May. She is now back to a two-a-day training schedule along with three weekly sessions with a personal trainer. Ziegler hasn’t quite regained her old excitement, but she is more at peace and less restless.
She didn’t like the idea of letting lingering disappointment drive her out of the sport. That, she knew, would have been the wrong reason to quit.
Yet there remain plenty of days she feels like doing so. She said she spent 45 minutes unloading her latest frustrations on Benecki during a recent practice while everyone else swam.
“I know this is something that’s not going to go away in an instant,” Ziegler said.
“It’s a balance,” Benecki said, “and sometimes it’s a struggle.”
She plans to swim the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles at next week’s championships in Indianapolis, which will determine the team that goes to Rome for the July 25-Aug. 2 world championships.
There is something refreshing, she said, about having no idea how she will perform. There might come a time — not this summer — to start chasing crazy goals again.
“I went into this year knowing I can’t have the expectations I had in the past,” Ziegler said. “I want to take care of myself now so I don’t get burned out again. ….. I’d love to go to Italy; I’d love to go to the world championships, but I’m just not putting pressure on myself.”