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Reaching for Gold

Great Falls girl wins two gold medals at World Swimming Championships.

When Kate Ziegler’s parents first put her into a swimming pool, there was no way they could have known what they were getting themselves into.

At 17, Ziegler has become one of the top swimmers in the world, recently winning first place in the 800-meter and 1500-meter races at the World Swimming Championships in Montreal.

“I just got back from Montreal, so I’m taking a little break,” Ziegler said from her home in Great Falls. “I get about one break a year so I’m taking it easy right now."

She began swimming in a summer league at age 7, and it became a year-round hobby three years later. “When I was little, I just loved being in the water. My parents would take me to the pool … my mom says I used to do laps in the baby pool,” she said with a laugh.

After joining the FISH swim team in McLean, she was placed in their top group after about six months and began swimming competitively.

“In the past two years, I’ve been to Montreal, Australia, New York and California,” she said, in addition to some regional competitions. She narrowly missed out on being a member of the 2004 Olympic swim team, something she hopes to correct in time for the 2008 trials.

“Going to the Olympics is definitely a goal of mine,” she said. “It’s my three-year goal, but you never know what’s going to happen. I love being in the water. My best friends are all on my team.”

It is a goal and a dream shared by her parents, Don and Cathy Ziegler.

“I lasted one day on my high school swimming team myself,” Cathy Ziegler said. “I can’t count how many meets I’ve been to now, between her meets at school and summer meets and competitions.”

She remembers when Kate started taking swimming lessons and the realization that she would have to get up early during the summer to drive her to the pool. “As much as I hated getting up early, I realized that there was some value teaching her structure in the summer,” she said.

From there, they encouraged her to try out for the FISH team. “She was reluctant at first because she’d never done it before, but after she met the coach she agreed,” Ziegler said.

Countless laps, practices and meets later, the Zieglers have become friends with many of the other swim parents they see regularly.

“The meets are long and they get a little boring, but I enjoy sitting in the stands and talking with the other parents,” she said. “We all sit and do our needlework together. I enjoy watching her do well.”

“Kate is the athlete of the family,” said her father, Don Ziegler. “Parents want their kids to try things and have a broad experience in life. This is just one aspect of that for her and it’s a fabulous experience.”

Even though they have watched her swim and win many times before, he said, his daughter can still surprise him from time to time.

“I’m amazed by how professional she is when she’s being interviewed,” he said. “I thought that when they raised the American flag and played the national anthem at Worlds she’d start crying but she was very mature. I was getting choked up when they raised the flag. It’s one thing to represent your school or yourself at meets, but it’s an entirely different thing to represent your country.”

AS SHE PREPARES to graduate from Bishop O’Connell High School next June, Don Ziegler hopes she continues to live a good life.

“I told her she might be a good swimmer for 10 years but I hope she’ll continue to be a good person for 70 years. That’s more important,” he said. “The life lessons she can learn from this are numerous. I hope she can continue to be happy in swimming or whatever else she chooses to do. She sacrifices a lot to do this.”

“Kate’s been given an incredible gift,” Cathy Ziegler said. “You can look at swimming and ask what value is it to the world and you’d be right, but when you have a talent like this, it gives you the ability to reach people,” she said, adding, “I feel God has given her this talent for a reason, and I hope we’ll be sensitive to that purpose.”

Ray Benicki has been Kate’s coach for the past four years and has been able to accompany her to many of her competitions.

“When she first came to the team, she didn’t have a strong background in being a fast swimmer, so it took her a while to move into the top team,” he said.

She was a fast swimmer, but he wanted to see if she could make it as a distance swimmer. “At that age, she was too young to specialize in the 50-meter freestyle race, but she’s been able to take that speed and spread it out over 800 and 1500 meters, which is the exact opposite of what most distance swimmers do,” he said, adding that most swimmers lose some of their speed over long distances and would prefer to stick with shorter races. “It’s a lot of extra laps, a lot of longer swims with shorter rests and endurance training.”

There have been some complications along the way, he said, including realizing she had asthma two summers ago.

“She got into the Olympic trials after a good meet at George Mason University, and the next week she had difficulty breathing after a meet,” he said. He talked with some other coaches and encouraged her to go to a specialist who was able to give her an inhaler specifically for athletes. “Being a swimmer, her lung capacity is probably a littler larger that most people. It has to be adjusted from time to time, but I can tell when it needs to be tweaked, usually because of the change in seasons,” Benicki said.

THE TIME COMMITMENT required to be a competitive swimmer creates a family-like bond among teammates, he said, all of whom wish Kate well when she competes and console her if a meet does not go well.

“The more mature swimmers look at what she’s doing and think it’ll work for them too. We all support each other, but obviously we know there can only be one world champion. It might be different if she didn’t earn the respect of her teammates, but she’s so sweet and nice everyone wishes her the best,” Benicki said.

Although the Olympic trials are still a few years off, they discuss the trials often, he said.

“She dropped 18 seconds from January to July before the trails last year. A lot of people at the Olympic trials said that if she just had another year she’d be on the team,” he said. “She’s got three years to go. A lot of experts at USA Swimming said that if she was able to gain one inch per stroke, she’d have the world record. You can’t rush things,” he said.

Kate and her coach spend a lot of time together, training and practicing. “I have eight practices each week in the winter, two morning swims, four afternoon swims and then one on Saturday and Sunday. In the spring we add a morning practice,” she said. “My major goal is to keep improving. I know if I keep going it’ll get me to where I want to be.”

Now that she has a little time off before starting her final year at Bishop O’Connoll, acting as a captain for her school swim team and deciding which college she will attend, she and her coach took the opportunity for a quick reward: This past weekend, they flew to Florida to swim with dolphins, something she has always wanted to do.