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

Bradie Tennell matures from Cinderella — keeping AC/DC — in Skate America return

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Bradie Tennell is asked to recall one memory from 2017 Skate America.

“Standing at the door for free program and looking into the arena and saying to myself, oh, it feels a bit like nationals,” she said.

Tennell returns this week to the event where she broke out last season. Before 2017 Skate America, Tennell had never competed on the top senior international level. She had finished sixth and ninth at two nationals appearances, spending a summer in a back brace in between. She was the dark horse for the three-woman Olympic team.

Then Tennell went 15 for 15 on her jumps at Skate America at the Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Arena on Thanksgiving weekend. She earned a bronze medal with the highest score in any international competition by a U.S. woman in more than a year and half.

“I did my job,” Tennell said that day. “I think I have [put myself in the Olympic conversation].”

Tennell’s next three competitions were nationals (which she won) and the Olympics and world championships, where she was the top-placing American in ninth and sixth, respectively, albeit with uncharacteristic jumping errors.

She goes into this week’s Skate America — at the beginning of the Grand Prix series, rather than the end — as the clear American headliner in the marquee Winter Olympic event.

MORE: Skate America TV, stream schedule

Mirai NagasuAshley Wagner and Polina Edmunds aren’t competing this fall. Gracie Gold is coming back but hasn’t competed in nearly two years. The other active Olympian, Karen Chen, just withdrew from her first Grand Prix next month with a foot injury.

“I don’t really get nervous, per se,” Tennell said last week. “I think the only time that I am anything close to like anxious is right before my music starts. But last year I was so excited to be at my first Grand Prix, finally, after so much had happened in the past. That excitement carried over into my performances.”

Tennell’s goals this season, which she looks at daily with coach Denise Myers in suburban Chicago, include showing a grown-up look. Last season, Tennell’s teenage free skate was to “Cinderella.” This season, the 20-year-old chose “Romeo and Juliet.”

“I want this year’s Bradie to be very mature, very elegant, somebody who is almost unrecognizable from last year,” Tennell said in an interview with Skating magazine, for which she wore a black “New Kids on the Block” sleeveless T-shirt and plugged into a Sanyo Walkman for the cover photo shoot, an homage to her love of 1980s rock. 

Tennell used the Shakespearean tragedy to overtake Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia in her season debut at the Autumn Classic in Canada last month. The free-skate score ranks sixth in the world going into the Grand Prix series, trailing three Russians and two Japanese.

The challenge for Tennell and every top U.S. woman the last several years has been breaking into the top echelon of skaters from Russia and Japan.

“When she blew onto the scene, obviously, technically, she’s fantastic and so consistent [with jumps], which I think really sets her apart,” NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said. “The effort [at Autumn Classic], the choices of music, her movement, choreography, intention behind each movement is, in my opinion, dramatically improved from last year. Is it at the same level as Yevgenia or [Olympic champion] Alina Zagitova? No. So I still think this is going to be a time of transformation for her over the next few seasons. But she’s off to a really, really strong start.”

Tennell also added the triple Lutz-triple loop combination, done only by Zagitova last season among the senior women.

Myers, who has coached Tennell since age 9, insists they don’t compare scores or even talk about placements.

“I don’t give that any thought,” said Tennell, whose pre-competition focus is on the likes of AC/DC, Journey and Foreigner on her 100-plus-song playlist. “I don’t focus on other people, who they are or what they’ve done.”

Then Tennell may not be dwelling on the fact that she could become the youngest U.S. woman to win Skate America since Kimmie Meissner in 2007. Neither Zagitova nor Medvedeva is in this week’s field in Everett, Wash. Neither is world champion Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada, who is taking the season off.

The top threats are Japanese Satoko Miyahara and Kaori Sakamoto, who went one-two ahead of Tennell at 2017 Skate America. Tennell’s total score from Autumn Classic (206.41) beat those from Miyahara and Sakamoto in their late-summer events.

“You can tell that [Tennell] didn’t win the national title, go to the Olympics and is relaxing, easing into the next Olympic cycle,” NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir said. “She’s out for blood.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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MORE: Gracie Gold details ‘mental health crisis,’ return to skating

Watch ‘1968’ and ‘Bring the Fire: A Conversation with John Carlos’

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NBCSN airs “1968,” the NBC Olympics documentary on the Mexico City Games narrated by Serena Williams, followed by a 15-minute excerpt of “Bring the Fire: A Conversation with John Carlos” on Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.

Both full programs can also be streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

“1968,” which premiered during the PyeongChang Winter Games, tells the stories not only of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the medal podium, but also of the intersections of sports and politics leading up to and during the Mexico City Olympics.

“Bring the Fire” focuses on Smith, Carlos and the podium gesture, featuring a conversation between NBC Sports track and field analyst Ato Boldon and Carlos.

STREAM LINK: “1968”
STREAM LINK: “Bring the Fire: A Conversation with John Carlos”

Then on Oct. 31, NBCSN premieres a two-hour special, “1968: The Legacy of the Mexico City Games,” at 8:30 p.m. ET. That show will include “1968,” along with a roundtable discussion about the legacy of the Mexico City Games.

Mike Tirico hosts a panel including Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (the first Muslim-American woman to compete at the Olympics with a hijab), tennis player James Blake and Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis.

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MORE: John Carlos, Tommie Smith remember 1968 Olympics on 50th anniversary