By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Two-time Olympian Kate Ziegler just completed her degree at Chapman College. Ziegler owned the distance events for a decade in the most competitive era in the history of swimming. She paved the path towards distance dominance for the United States. But Ziegler has only recently grown comfortable with her rollercoaster career. The growth and perspective she’s gained is the real gold medal she’ll hold for the rest of her life, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Kate Ziegler, college graduate – how’s that feel?
Kate: It’s a great accomplishment, a good thing to cross off the list. It’s a nice thing to have done, but it’s time for whatever is next.
2. What is next?
Kate: Right now I am taking a break from swimming. I am taking the summer off and pursuing some other ventures. I took a break after ‘08 and got back into it. I decided this time around that I would look at some other things. I am swimming on an easier training schedule, but it’s important after a quadrennial to get some perspective and see what you want to do next.
3. Has it sunk in yet that no matter what, you are one of the few two-time Olympians for the U.S. women’s team in the past decade?
Kate: Sure, it’s something that I am very proud of, and I am now really able to appreciate what a feat that is – what an accomplishment that is. I am finally able to pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, good job.” For a long time I didn’t have that perspective. After ‘08, as a lot of people know, I was miserable. I had a disappointing Games and was lost as a person. I had a lot of personal struggles and felt like a complete failure. I wasn’t proud to tell people I was an Olympian. I felt embarrassed; I felt like an Olympic failure. Now with another experience, another Olympics (2012) – another disappointing Olympics, albeit for different reasons, this time around I am able to say I gave it my all. And at the end of the day, that’s what it is about; the journey and everything that comes with it, not just a medal. I am proud, like others have said, to be able to say that I am an Olympian – a two-time Olympian. That is an amazing achievement.
4. Personally I think your story is truly amazing, and in so many ways it’s among the most inspirational journeys out there – do you share this with people?
Kate: I do share my story, and that is one of the blessings coming out of this. A lot of people have asked me, and I have asked myself, if I can share this story. Is this what I am meant to do? After ’08, I was always up front and honest. I feel like at the end of the day, I have learned a lot about myself through all of this. I learned a lot in the period from ’08 to ’12, and even more since coming home from London in 2012. I feel like these experiences and heartbreaks I’ve had, I can share with people – the good, the bad and very ugly days I went through, because there are so many people who can relate. There are people going through very similar and much more difficult struggles but in a whole different realm of life, whether it is the office or something with family or a friend. I am being told – as I can tell you from facing similar circumstances, going through it – that it really helps to hear from someone who can understand and share what they learned. That’s why I am so honest about it, and that is why it’s so important to me, and near and dear to my heart.
5. We touched on the graduation – congratulations! – but what a great journey that was as well. I remember talking to you when you were signing up for classes at George Mason, and here you are, graduating from Chapman, right?
Kate: I went straight to George Mason after high school graduation and then transferred to Chapman after a semester off. To graduate means a lot. You owe it to yourself, and you are better from the learning and personal development that comes from it.
6. What a swim team Chapman would have had if you post-grads could have competed – and if they had a swim team, of course!
Kate: (laughs) Ariana (Kukors) and Katie (Hoff) were there, and unfortunately (laughs) were pros by then, but what a team. And how much fun would that would’ve been! Chapman has a beautiful 50-meter pool on campus, a sunny, beautiful pool.
7. What are you doing now?
Kate: It has always been in my heart to help others, particularly teens and women who are going through the plethora of issues we run into on a day-to-day basis. So, right now I’m doing swim clinics where, in addition to stroke technique work, we also discuss the life lessons swimming teaches. In addition, I really enjoy speaking to non-swimming groups. For instance, I’ve shared my story with women’s groups, Church youth groups, and was recently the keynote speaker at the Sports Faith International Hall of Fame.
8. People really relate well to you and your story, do you get that feeling, too?
Kate: I think there is a very human quality to the story. We all, every day, face struggles, which define us personally. Not everyone can say that they went to two Olympics and came home disappointed. But everyone has their “Olympics” – a dream job they were gunning for and didn’t get, a relationship they thought was for life that went off the rails, or just the heartbreak of not getting a date for prom. Adversity comes in so many forms, but how you deal with it – not the adversity itself – is what defines you, and it can push you far further forward than it can set you back if you choose that path.
9. It just makes you seem both larger than life and also very real – the unique story – is that accurate?
Kate: I don’t know about larger than life but I certainly feel very real. Would I like to pull out a gold medal? Yes! I would love to do that, but it didn’t happen. How do you get over that? How do you get better? How do you do it? It’s very honest, very raw, very relatable.
10. I get that you don’t have an Olympic medal, but that trophy case is full of all kinds of gold and other medals from Worlds and Nationals and everything else – do you celebrate that part of it, or is the focus all on the Olympics?
Kate: You know what, that is very interesting. Yes, I have great memories and have accomplished a lot. I was very recently going through a bunch of old swimming stuff, magazine articles to put in a scrapbook, some medals, and I realized, “Wow, I was pretty good.” I think at the time I did not stop to acknowledge my accomplishments. I was very goal oriented, so instead of savoring what I had achieved I was reaching for the next goal. Plus, outside the pool, I just saw myself as Kate the friend/daughter/sister/student. Now, from this perspective, I can pat myself on the back and say “Hey, you did really well. Good job, Kate.”
11. I remember chatting with you after trips overseas and you’d just marvel about the places you had been, yet you always wished you could have stayed longer – will that happen at some point?
Kate: I so desperately want to go back to all those places I went to. It comes back to really appreciating the moment and living in the moment. I saw hotels, airports and pools, we did see some sights here and there, but it was mostly business travel. I tell people I have been to Dubai and China, but the reality is I didn’t really see that much. But I love to travel. I never imagined where swimming would take me; I am so thankful and grateful for that, but I want to go back to them all and see the sights, learn the history and meet more people.
12. So you and I are standing outside an elevator at Golden Goggles – I hope you remember this! – and people are fawning over how pretty you looked; while you were very gracious, I am wondering how that felt? I can fill in the blanks, on the other hand, of what it was like standing there being completely ignored!
Kate: I believe you did (laughs) very well with the lovely date you had with you! Let me say, it was very, very nice that people were so complimentary. I am a lady; I love to get dressed up and dry my hair and get it out of that darn swim cap and feel pretty for the night!
13. How did you end up moving back east?
Kate: I moved back after graduating. But the real impetus was my sister giving birth – I am the happy new aunt to beautiful Abigail June born three months ago!
14. Are you still considering graduate school?
Kate: Yes, I’m still considering it. I have talked to a lot of people around here and done some networking to figure out exactly what it is I want to do. I have so many interests but you can only pick (laughs) one for a career. I am still interested in grad school for a masters or perhaps Ph.D. in psychology to become a psychologist, but there’s no firm decision yet.
15. Sorry I keep coming back to this, but graduation – aren’t you glad you went?
Kate: You know what? I almost didn’t go to graduation to walk. I was like, “No, it took me long enough, and I finished in December, so…” But I cannot tell you the immense pride I had walking onto that field. Then, it didn’t hit me until I walked out with two girlfriends that, “We did this, this is really cool!” It might not quite stack up to (laughs) walking into the stadium at Opening Ceremonies, but walking into Chapman Stadium was a really unique moment, and I am very proud.
16. What were the Games like, having them in London?
Kate: It was awesome. Everyone was so kind and so helpful. There was such an immense pride among the people in London. There was such excitement just walking around out on the streets, and people were so welcoming. I had an extra special experience to be able to stay after the Games ended because a good friend of mine is living in London. So I got to stay with her and immerse myself in culture and everything beyond the Olympics, and that really meant a lot.
17. How were the 2008 Games different from the 2012 Games for you?
Kate: For me, it was so different because of my personal struggles going on. I didn’t want to be there in ‘08; I didn’t want to be competing in the Olympics. I was so burned out on swimming. I wanted to run away from the pool. That, very unfortunately, clouded my whole experience. Whereas in London I was so excited and soaked it all up.
18. So in 2016 all the stars will align and Rio will be perfect for you, right?
Kate: (laughs) I seem to be the definition of third time is the charm! Like I said when you first asked, I am taking a break; I have not officially retired. But if I do, it has to be on my terms. I have a great foundation and I am staying extremely busy. I’m also working out – I spin and I run. I do Pilates, weights, yoga and hiking, I love being active.
19. Looking back, what would you change?
Kate: I wish I appreciated and lived in the moment more. I think that I got too wrapped up in the expectations of others, and living up to what I thought I had to be – this sort of ideal Kate Ziegler. When I really should have, at the end of the day, been satisfied with who I was and what I was doing. That would have been plenty enough for me. I never realized how good I was. I should have said, “Hey good job,” instead of letting my perfectionist tendencies take over. It is good to start over each day and want to get better, and to push yourself, but you have to have those moments where you say, “This was really good today. I’ll face tomorrow when it comes. But today was awesome.”
20. So proud to know you. And let’s finish with this: What was it like on the Olympic team with those amazing people – and what did Katie Ledecky’s performance mean to you since you were part of it and up close through it all?
Kate: It was an incredible team. It was the closest I ever felt with a team. We bonded so well. There was such support from the veterans to the younger crowd coming in – yet it didn’t feel like a separate veterans group and newbie group. Everyone learned from each other, everyone supported each other, and we had so much fun, whether it was making the “Call Me Maybe” video or walking around France during training camp. Whatever we were doing was so much fun. It was a positive group and positive experience. And really a special team. As far as Katie, oh my gosh, I am so proud! As you know, I got to meet her family at Olympic Trials and we got to talk after the 800. I was so excited for her. I wasn’t as good at 15 as she was, but I lived that and knew that experience. She is so special, just such a cool girl. So humble, and I was so proud of her. Her family is so great. In London, they came up to me after the race and I was just over the moon excited for her. Her parents came up to me and said, “You have made such a difference, you are part of this, too.” Even to this day, I have to pause when I think of that, because it makes me so emotional. I didn’t feel like I did anything. Yet they said, “We want you to know, this medal might be around her neck, but it’s for you, too.” They are so kind. She and her family are so special. I am so glad I got to spend time with them at Golden Goggles and get to know them. And I am so proud of Katie – she is amazing!