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

Kate Ziegler
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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

Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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