Kate Ziegler

Kate Ziegler returns from 2-year swimming break, by way of Alaska, Australia

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Two-time Olympian Kate Ziegler will swim competitively this week for the first time in more than two years and, the former world-record holder said, in a refreshed, excited state for the first time in more than three years.

“I needed time away,” Ziegler said in a phone interview from her Tennessee base Tuesday, reflecting since the London 2012 Olympics, refocusing her passion for a sport that had more often than not been her identity since age 6.

She’s in a new training setting and, as will be seen at the Pro Swim Series meet in Charlotte starting Thursday, in new events.

Ziegler, now 26, is entered in the 100m, 200m and 400m freestyles. Her first event is Friday’s 200m free, the beginning of a much lighter slate than she’s used to.

Ziegler was once the world’s greatest distance swimmer, following the likes of U.S. Olympic champions Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett.

She swept the 800m and 1500m freestyles at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships, the first of those golds coming less than a month after her 17th birthday (elite distance swimmers often peak in their teens).

She also shattered Evans’ 19-year-old world record in the grueling 1500m by nearly 10 seconds in 2007 and held the mark for six years before Katie Ledecky seized it.

But in the Olympics, Ziegler did not advance to any finals over three events in 2008 and 2012. She felt burned out at Beijing 2008 and suffered from the flu after walking in the Opening Ceremony at London 2012.

It was reportedly 65 degrees at Olympic Stadium that evening, and many swimmers skip the Opening Ceremony to rest up for events that weekend, but Ziegler wasn’t due to compete for another six days.

In her only London Olympic swim, Ziegler finished eighth out of eight swimmers in her 800m freestyle heat, 15.51 seconds slower than her second-place time at the Olympic trials one month earlier.

The top eight overall made the final, won by Ledecky. Ziegler finished 21st overall, behind athletes from Argentina, Liechtenstein and Lebanon, nations with little history of swimming success. The U.S. entered 52 swimmers in the pool across 26 individual events in London. Ziegler was the only one to finish outside the top 20.

She reportedly broke down in tears in front of media following her swim, four years after a Beijing Olympic experience she called a “complete failure” that led her to believe she “wasn’t proud to tell people I was an Olympian.”

“I came into this race thinking I was going to fight and do the best I could,” she reportedly said after the London 800m free heat, “and that’s what I did.”

Ziegler spent the final days of the Olympics touring London with teammate Amanda Weir and coming back for the Closing Ceremony. It may have been her Olympic farewell.

Ziegler took six months off after the 2008 Olympics but went right back into the pool following London.

It wasn’t until after a February 2013 meet that she decided a break was necessary.

“I was not done with swimming but needing to do other things,” she said.

Ziegler visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and ate lunch at the White House, but her passion for the sport was perhaps most rekindled in Alaska and Australia last year.

She helped lead swim clinics in Anchorage and Fairbanks in July and August. Another swimmer on that trip, 2012 Olympic 4x200m free relay champion Davis Tarwater, encouraged Ziegler to check out his home of Knoxville, Tenn., if she was looking to return to regular training.

She took him up on it and toured Knoxville for the first time in September.

“Sort of like a recruiting process,” said Tarwater’s intermittent coach, the University of Tennessee head coach Matt Kredich.

Later that fall, Ziegler flew to Australia and New Zealand with her mother and coached at the International Children’s Games in New South Wales, for athletes ages 12 to 15.

During this time, she spoke regularly with her longtime coach in Virginia, Ray Benecki.

“Kate, you’ve got to do what’s best for you,” Ziegler said Benecki told her. “What brings you happiness?”

Ziegler moved to Knoxville in January. She now trains with a post-graduate group under Kredich.

She gushed about the environment, an uplifting, empowering culture.

“It’s a place that you just want to succeed at, and it fosters success,” said Ziegler, who modified her stroke to adapt to shorter events. “It’s been refreshing.”

Ziegler also noted the support of former teammates, specifically close friend Katie Hoff and Ian Crocker, whose careers included highs and Olympic lows like Ziegler.

“Two people who were really instrumental in helping me figure out my ‘why’ in the sport,” Ziegler said. “Why am I doing this? What do I want to get out of it?”

It’s all about outlook.

“The reminder for myself is that swimming distinguishes me, and it’s something I enjoy doing, but it does not define me,” Ziegler said. “I’m not defined by the successes or the failures in the sport. That was something that was very hard for me growing up. It was really my identity.”

With that mindset, Ziegler isn’t putting expectations on her return this week. Kredich said she’s improved at a higher rate over the last four weeks than any other stretch since she moved to Knoxville.

“My impression is she wants to she how good she can be,” Kredich said. “She’s in some ways starting over, and she just wants to keep progressing and keep getting better. I believe she has the Olympic trials in her crosshairs. That’s definitely on her mind.”

She might not swim the 100m freestyle in Charlotte, and she doesn’t see any 800m or 1500m frees in her future. Is her best event now the 400m, or the 200m?

“I think that’ll be answered at Charlotte,” Kredich said. “Her background says 400. The training and what she’s been working at would say the 200.”

Ziegler was reflective when pressed about a potential third Olympics.

“Would it be redemption? I don’t know,” said Ziegler, whose Twitter bio includes this line, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

“I look back on my Olympic experiences, and there was a lot of heartache there, but I’m really actually, as crazy as it might sound, I’m really thankful for what happened,” she said. “It taught me a lot. This time, if I make it to the Olympics again, I will be able to swim with a lot more freedom, gratitude and perspective that I think will help me to truly appreciate the experience.”

Katie Ledecky eyes daunting double at World Championships

Pole vaulter, 84, sets her sights on more records

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — An 84-year-old pole vaulter isn’t putting her pole down anytime soon.

Flo Filion Meiler left Thursday for the World Masters Athletics Championship Indoor in Poland, where she’ll compete in events including the long jump, 60-meter hurdles, 800-meter run, pentathlon and pole vault, for which she’s the shoo-in.

The petite, energetic woman from Shelburne, Vermont, said she feels more like 70 than nearly 85.

“But you know, I do train five days a week. And when I found out I was going to compete at the worlds, I’ve been training six days a week because I knew I would really get my body in shape,” she said last week, after track and field training at the University of Vermont.

But she literally won’t have any competition in the pole vault in the championships, which runs March 24-31 in Torun, Poland. She is the only one registered in her age group, 80-84, for the sport, for which she set a world record at age 80. In the men’s pole vault, nine men are listed as competing in that age group.

Meiler said she the events she likes the best are the hurdles and the pole vault – one of the more daring track and field events, in which competitors run while carrying a fiberglass or composite pole, brace it against the ground to launch themselves over a high bar, and land on a mat.

“You really have to work at that,” she said. “You have to have the upper core and you have to have timing, and I just love it because it’s challenging.”

Meiler is used to hard work. She grew up on a dairy farm, where she helped her father with the chores, feeding the cattle and raking hay. In school, she did well at basketball, took tap and ballroom dancing, and, living near Lake Champlain, she water skied.

Meiler, who worked for 30 years as a sales representative for Herbalife nutritional supplements, and her husband, Eugene, who was a military pilot and then became a financial analyst, together competed in water skiing.

“Many times when I did water ski competition I was the only gal in my age group,” she said.

She’s a relative newcomer to pole vaulting and track and field, overall. At age 60, she was competing in doubles tennis with her husband in a qualifying year at the Vermont Senior Games when a friend encouraged her to try the long jump because competitors were needed.

“That was the beginning of my track career,” she said, standing in a room of her home, surrounded by hundreds of hanging medals. She took up pole vaulting at 65.

Athletics has helped her though some hard times, she said. She and her husband adopted three children after losing two premature biological babies and a 3-year-old. Two years ago, their son died at age 51.

And she desperately misses her training partner, a woman who started having health problems about five years ago and can no longer train. It’s tough to train alone, she said, and she hopes to find a new partner.

“She’s incredibly serious about what she does,” said Meiler’s coach, Emmaline Berg. “She comes in early to make sure she’s warmed up enough. She goes home and stretches a lot. So she pretty much structures her entire life around being a fantastic athlete, which is remarkable at any age, let alone hers.”

And it has paid off, said Berg, an assistant track coach at Vermont.

Berg herself first started following Meiler 10 years ago while she was a student at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, watching her at the annual Dartmouth Relays.

“She was like a local celebrity,” she said.

Setting a record at age 80 with a 6-foot (1.8-meter) pole vault at the USA Track and Field Adirondack Championships in Albany, New York, while her husband watched, Meiler said, was one of her happiest days.

“I was screaming, I was so happy,” she said.

The overall world record for women’s pole vaulting is 16.6 feet (5.6 meters), according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Meiler turns 85 in June, when she’ll head to the National Senior Games in New Mexico.

That will put her in a new age group, in which she hopes to set even more records.

Meiler’s athletic achievements are remarkable and something to be celebrated, said Dr. Michael LaMantia, director of the University of Vermont Center on Aging.

Pole vaulting clearly isn’t for everyone of her age, but in general, activity should be, LaMantia said.

“She can serve as a role model for other seniors,” he said.

Amateur boxing president steps aside during IOC inquiry

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — With Olympic boxing under investigation by the IOC, the president of the sport’s governing body said on Friday he was stepping aside to let an interim leader take charge.

Gafur Rakhimov sai d he was not resigning as AIBA president, however, and did not call for new elections.

Rakhimov’s status on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list as an alleged heroin trafficker is part of an inquiry by an International Olympic Committee-appointed panel.

The panel will update the IOC executive board next week in Lausanne, Switzerland. AIBA could be derecognized by IOC members in June.

The IOC halted planning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic boxing tournaments and blocked AIBA officials from contacting organizers in Japan.

“The allegations against me were fabricated and based on politically motivated lies,” Rakhimov said. “I trust that the truth will prevail. Nevertheless, I have always said that I would never put myself above boxing, and as president, I have a duty to do everything in my power to serve our sport and our athletes.”

Under AIBA statutes, an interim president is picked from among the five vice-presidents, who include several Rakhimov supporters. The executive committee is due to meet by telephone this weekend. The interim leader can serve only a maximum 365 days before fresh elections, however, meaning that arrangement can’t last through to the Tokyo Olympics.

When Rakhimov was elected last year, his supporters pushed for a plan to allow the president to step aside while still retaining key influence and being able to return at any time, but that was defeated.

It’s not clear if Rakhimov’s departure would be enough to calm the IOC, which has also criticized AIBA over how fights are judged, anti-doping measures, and its debts.

The IOC could try to host an Olympic boxing tournament without AIBA, and some national boxing officials have tried to form a group which could help the IOC stage the event.