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O’Connell Grad Eyes Beijing

Ziegler assures spot on Olympic team in 400-meter freestyle.

First, there was Shelley Mann. And then there was Tom Dolan. Both swimmers were born and bred in Arlington and both are gold medalists — albeit over 40 years apart — and are still revered as the darlings of local swimming.

But now, there’s Kate Ziegler.

Granted the 20-year-old distance swimmer lives in Great Falls and was born in Fairfax, but the 2006 Bishop O’Connell grad is already making a splash and creating wakes. And on Monday, she’s one step closer to joining the Arlington swimming legends.

Ziegler assured herself a spot the U.S. Olympic team with a second place finish in the 400-meter freestyle on Monday in Omaha, Neb., coming in 1.6 seconds behind rival Katie Hoff, the once-world record holder in the 400-meter individual medley. It was a personal record for Ziegler.

“It’s a huge honor for her,” said Evan Stiles, the Bishop O’Connell head swimming coach. “She has been thinking about this for a long time and to have [the 400-meter freestyle] happen first to get it out of the way is a big relief for her. She’s looking forward to relaxing a little bit now that she’s on the team, and swimming well for the rest of the meet.”

Ziegler trains with coach Ray Benecki and his club team, The FISH, while Hoff lives in Towson and trains with Michael Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Living less than an hour apart, and wrestling over the distance swimming spotlight, the rivalry is mostly friendly. And on Monday, it was no exception.

Hoff, who had already qualified for the Olympic team by virtue of winning Sunday's 400 individual medley, excelled in the ladder portion of the race, winning in 4 minutes 2.32 seconds.

Ziegler wasn’t far behind, knowing that a second-place finish would virtually assure her a spot in the upcoming Bejing Olympics because elite swimmers usually qualify for multiple events.

Ziegler actually finished third in the time trials, losing to Hoff and runner-up Allison Schmitt by 0.32 seconds. But Ziegler edged the 18-year-old Schmitt when it counted — in the finals.

“She’s just so excited to represent her country, and it’s something she’s been thinking about for a long time,” Stiles said.

<b>THE GEORGE MASON</b> student’s best event actually isn’t even an Olympic sanctioned race. The four-time world record holder shattered Janet Evans' 18-year world record time by 10 seconds in the 1,500 in October, 2007. Ziegler is actually one of only two women in history to crack the 16-minutes barrier in the event.

Ziegler locked herself in position to the Olympic team after failing to qualify as a nondescript 15-year-old in Long Beach, Calif in 2004. Then, it was no pressure, but now, only two years removed from high school, she’s carrying the weight of the world.

Ever since, it’s been a whirlwind of travel, media interviews, photo shoots and a full course load, all of which pierce valuable time training. At O’Connell, none of that mattered.

As a freshman, she finished third in the 200-yard freestyle (1:51.59) and won the 500-yard freestyle (4:47.78) at the 2003 Metros Swimming and Diving Championships, breaking the then-15-year-old record in the 500 held by Pam Minthorn.

“I knew she was something special coming in as an 8th grader and coming into her freshman year,” Stiles said. “But then she got older and continue to improve, and then it was definitely something we knew would be a possibility down the road.”

The following year, as a sophomore, she won both the 200-yard freestyle (1:46.15) and the 500-yard freestyle (4:41.91) in record time. And as a junior, she won the 200-yard freestyle (1:45.43) and set an Independent National High School record in 500-yard freestyle (4:37.67).

As a senior, she tied the National High School record in the 200-yard free (1:45.49) and broke Janet Evans' National Record in the 500-yard free (4:35.35).

Ziegler is eyeing gold in the 800-meter freestyle where she’s the likely favorite heading into Friday’s final. She will also compete again against Hoff in the 200-meter freestyle, which hosted its finals on Tuesday.

“I’m not too surprised,” Stiles said. “If I had to say something, I’d say that it’s expected because that’s how good she is.”