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

Figure skating’s Grand Prix fields look very different this season

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Before Nathan Chen is expected to go for a historic fifth straight U.S. figure skating title in January, he will, in a first, compete against most of his top countrymen later this month.

Fields for the Grand Prix Series, figure skating’s autumn international circuit, were published Thursday. As expected, every top skater entered will compete in his or her home country, or nearest to where he or she trains, and in one of the six events.

Traditionally, skaters compete in two of the six events and are scattered among competitions in the U.S., Canada, France, Russia, China and Japan based on world rankings.

But the International Skating Union restricted travel this season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Skaters are limited to compete locally. And the Grand Prix Final at the conclusion of the Grand Prix Series has been postponed from its scheduled December setting in Beijing.

That means that Chen vies for a record-tying fourth straight Skate America crown in Las Vegas in three weeks against a field mostly made up of countrymen, including Olympic teammate Vincent Zhou and U.S. bronze medalist Tomoki Hiwatashi.

In all, there are eight U.S. men entered in Skate America, 11 women (including past national champions Bradie Tennell and Gracie Gold), six pairs and nine ice dance couples (including U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue), plus some skaters from other nations who train in the U.S.

Traditionally, a country has no more than three entries per discipline at a Grand Prix event.

GRAND PRIX FIELDS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Sochi Olympian Jason Brown, who trains in Toronto, is entered in Skate Canada the week after Skate America.

Two-time U.S. women’s champion Alysa Liu will not be old enough for the Grand Prix Series until the 2021-22 Olympic season.

All of the reigning Olympic champions are absent from the series.

Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan previously announced he wouldn’t compete due to virus-related travel risks. Russian Alina Zagitova extended her indefinite break from competition dating to last autumn, rather choosing to participate in a skating-themed TV series.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada retired. The German pairs’ team of Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot last competed in the 2018 Olympic season.

Instead, the headliners include Chen, the two-time world champion undefeated since placing fifth in PyeongChang. And a deep crop of Russian teenage women, all of course entered in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in November.

MORE: Brian Orser reacts to Yevgenia Medvedeva’s coaching switch

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French Open: Karolina Pliskova, top player sans Slam, again exits early

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No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova exited yet another Grand Slam in the early stages, falling to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia in the second round at Roland Garros on Thursday.

Ostapenko, whose only match wins at the French Open before this week came in her title run three years ago, bounced the big-serving Czech 6-4, 6-2.

Pliskova put fewer than half of her first serves in play, while Ostapenko fired 27 winners to 19 unforced errors. Pliskova was on the ropes in her first round, too, needing three sets to get past an Egyptian qualifier.

“Maybe same level as the match before, but of course [Ostapenko] is much better player,” Pliskova said. “Not much to say about this match.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Pliskova is the highest-ranked player of either gender (No. 4) without a Grand Slam title, yet hasn’t made it past the fourth round at a major since the 2019 Australian Open.

She’s played six Slams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, one shy of Caroline Wozniacki‘s total before she broke through at the 2018 Australian Open and two shy of Simona Halep‘s total before she won the 2018 French Open.

Ostapenko, meanwhile, is having a very different career.

She won the 2017 Roland Garros title, two days after turning 20, while ranked 47th. She hasn’t gotten past the third round of a major since 2018 Wimbledon, including first-round French Open exits the last two years, and is back down to No. 43 in the WTA rankings.

“It’s hard to compare with 2017. As I said, it was like three years ago, and I was much younger, and also I was fearless. Nobody knew me,” Ostapenko said. “The world doesn’t stop with winning only one Grand Slam. Of course I want to achieve more, and I want to be back in top five, top 10.”

She dropped just nine games in four sets this week.

Ostapenko gets 87th-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa in third round. Badosa dispatched 2018 French Open runner-up Sloane Stephens 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

MORE: Serena Williams ‘struggling to walk’

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