Great Falls native puts Beijing woes behind her

Kate Ziegler wondered whether she would ever be back.

In the aftermath of a disastrous Beijing Olympics in 2008, Ziegler, a Great Falls native once deemed one of the United States' elite young swimmers, had to step away from the sport that had defined her since childhood.

A four-time world champion entered in the 800-meter freestyle and the 400 freestyle during those games, the Bishop O'Connell graduate had her gold-medal dreams crushed under the weight of great expectations. She failed even to reach the finals in those two events in Beijing. Devastated and in desperate need of a break from the endless grind of training, Ziegler eventually contracted swine flu and didn't even attempt to qualify for the 2009 world championships in Rome. It would be two years before Ziegler competed again at a major meet. Only gradually did she regain her love for the sport.

"The last four years has been a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but it's been a really good journey," Ziegler said earlier this month. "I said it before, and I'll say it again -- my disappointments have definitely shaped me into the person and the swimmer I am today, and I wouldn't be here swimming like this or enjoying swimming so much had I not had all the experiences I've had."

By last year's world championships in Shanghai, Ziegler was again a competitive force, winning a silver medal in the 1,500 free and a bronze medal in the 800 free. Her time in the 800 (8 minutes, 23.36 seconds) was far shy of her best, but that was beside the point. Ziegler was clearly aiming for the London Games.

She finally made it there after placing second in the 800 at this month's U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb. This time she heads to the Olympics with a far healthier outlook than she took with her to Beijing -- it is one meet, one race, one small slice of a brilliant career. The worst is already behind her.

Now 24, Ziegler has spent much of the last four years building a life outside of swimming. She took classes at George Mason during her hiatus and eventually moved to Fullerton, Calif., to begin training seriously again. At the 2010 Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Irvine, Calif., she won the 800 and placed second in the 1,500 -- her best event but one that isn't contested at the Olympics. With the end of her career in sight after London, Ziegler will be ready to move on if that's the next step.

"I started out on my first intentional team when I was 16 years old, and I looked up to the older swimmers and now have that opportunity to give back," Ziegler said. "If nothing else I would love to be able to leave the sport saying that I helped maybe mentor, shape [and] give advice to the future of our sport."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com