News & Politics

Making of a Winner

How Kate Ziegler teamed up with a software engineer who moonlights as a swim coach to become one of the world’s top swimmers—and a good bet to win Olympic gold.

The coach and his swimmer met in 2000, a most unlikely pairing. He was infamous for punishing workouts that chewed up top swimmers. She was a tenderhearted 12-year-old who cried when her family left their Great Falls home for vacation.

Tears flowed often during her first weeks of practice. “So quit,” her parents told her. “You’re not going to the Olympics or anything.”

Today Kate Ziegler is the nation’s premier distance swimmer. She has four gold medals from swimming’s world championships, five US records, and a six-year endorsement deal with Speedo, which is betting she’s the next Janet Evans—who at 16 charmed the world while winning three golds at the 1988 Olympics. In June, Ziegler broke Evans’s mark in the 1,500-meter freestyle, the oldest world record in swimming.

High-spirited and poised at 19, Ziegler is a throwback to a time when athletes made it big without going through a big-time sports factory. Her coach, Ray Benecki, is a software engineer by trade who started a swim team on the side. Elite-level coaches typically manage huge programs or run high-powered college teams. The 54-year-old Benecki is simply a smart guy who works insanely hard and has a passion for swimming.

“Actually, it’s a sickness, but let’s call it a passion,” says Don Ziegler, Kate’s father.

Not long ago, the Ziegler/Benecki combination seemed to have run its course. Ziegler was weighing college choices that would take her from home—and Benecki.

But their story continues with coach and swimmer—who you might say are a perfect mismatch—pointed to the 2008 Olympics next August in Beijing.

Ziegler grew up in a Cape Cod off a gravel road in the woods of Great Falls. All three Ziegler kids started swimming as tots, but Kate, the youngest, took to water best. “She swam laps in the baby pool,” says her mother, Cathy.

At six, Ziegler reluctantly joined the Great Falls swim club’s summer team, crying in the car on the drive to the meet-the-coach cookout. “She really doesn’t like change,” Cathy says. “It’s a theme that runs through her life.”

Ziegler settled in and before long was talking so much in practices that teammates gave her a gag gift of a giant clothespin for her mouth. Soon she was bringing home blue ribbons swimming against kids two and three years older. One coach, assuming a swimmer this good had to be training year-round, asked her what team she swam with in winter.

Puzzled, the little girl replied: “I don’t swim in the winter. It’s too cold.”

At nine, Ziegler joined her first year-round program, the Herndon Commanders, where she broke team records and earned the nickname Ziggy. Just before she turned 12 and started middle school—with a schedule that nixed the drive to Herndon—Ziegler took a friend’s recommendation and visited Benecki’s McLean-based team, called Fish.

the Father of three boys, Benecki started Fish in 1991 for his oldest, Steven, who was four, and a few of Steven’s friends from the family’s summer swim club in Fairfax City.

“It was $250 to join,” Benecki says. “You got a suit, you got goggles, and that was it. I wasn’t making much money, but I wasn’t in it to make anything.”

As a college swimmer, Benecki broke the University of Delaware record for the 200-meter butterfly. He sees swimming as one of sports’ few meritocracies. The tall and lean enjoy a slight God-given advantage in the water, he says, but heart and desire matter more—if you work your butt off.

Many coaches at practices station themselves at one end of the pool. Not Benecki. He walks the side, correcting technique, calling out times, pushing for maximum effort. He offers swimmers no quarter, regardless of teen traumas over school or romance. Some burn out; others clash with him and leave the club.

“He expects the best, day in and day out,” says Alanna Ream, a Davidson College swimmer and six-year veteran of Fish. “There are no excuses.”

Says Ziegler: “In those first practices, I nearly died. Warm-ups were longer than the actual practice. I didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into.”

In about six months, she moved into the top group and showed Benecki the competitiveness he prizes. Though she’d done best in sprints, Benecki coaxed her into distance events with promises she’d do well. Ziegler laughed off the idea—then, in her last meet as a 12-year-old, put up an 800-freestyle time among the 30 best in the country. “She became a believer,” Benecki says.

Ziegler’s success defies convention. Benecki’s workouts ask for higher speed and fewer yards than is typical for endurance training. Distance swimmers are typically small, like marathoners, but Ziegler is tall with long arms. (“She will not admit to being six feet,” father Don says. “We kid her and say she’s five-thirteen.”) Though most swimmers conserve energy at the start of long races, she charges off the starting block.

“Kate seems to have the ability to go all out at the beginning and then keep going,” says Mark Schubert, the US national team’s head coach. “She’s just really tough.”

Over the years, Ziegler’s fear of Benecki softened. On her first trip to nationals, in Minneapolis when she was 13, she had the flu and scratched her first event. Benecki hates roller coasters but rode one with her at the Mall of America.

The coach regularly springs for Fish outings—a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, a whitewater-rafting trip. When Ziegler was the only Fish swimmer to advance to the top levels of competition, she and Benecki spent time together on the road. She came to lean on him for advice about boys, school, and other dry-land matters.

“He gets a bad rap,” she says. “People say he’s sadistic, obsessive; it’s totally not true. I think every coach is meticulous and a little crazy to spend so much time on one thing. But when it comes down to it, he’s an awesome guy. I think of him almost as a second dad.”

At the pool, Benecki knows how to motivate Ziegler. Once he surprised her at a practice with a challenge: Rather than count the seconds of rest between sets, he read aloud the names of girls who had the top ten times nationally in the 800 freestyle.

“They have a love-hate relationship, like any coach and great athlete,” says John Urbanchek, a coach with the national team. “I’ve seen them bicker and fight. But Ray has the password to get into her mind.”

When anxieties dog Ziegler, Benecki nudges her forward. Selected for a national-junior-team trip to Australia at 15, Ziegler balked. “I’m at practice, and I’m bawling, ‘I don’t want to go! I don’t want to fly by myself!’ Ray says, ‘Oh, come on, it’s going to be so much fun.’ He gives me a hug and then says, ‘Suck it up.’ ”

“Ray taught Kate how to be tough,” Cathy Ziegler says. “She needs that where she is now. And it’s spread through­­out her life.”

When Ziegler was 13, Benecki suggested to her father that he start researching college swim programs. By her senior year at Arlington’s Bishop O’Connell High School, Don—a retired finance executive—had narrowed the choices. But as the family huddled with visiting coaches at the kitchen table, no school looked perfect. Some were too far from home; others had a revolving door in the coach’s office.

About the same time, sports-apparel companies began courting Ziegler. A new option emerged: Ziegler could turn pro, go to college locally, and continue to train with Benecki.

Ultimately, that choice made sense. Benecki had led her on a fast rise—she went to the Olympic Trials just four years after starting with Fish. Why change now? A college coach might set her back by monkeying with her stroke or training.

“I advised her to stay home and keep working with Ray,” Urbancheck says. “He’s smart, and I think he’s on the right course.”

Says Ziegler: “Every coach has their first big swimmer. Certainly the greatest coaches, who’ve had 20 or 30 swimmers go to the Olympics, had their first one, too. He hasn’t let me down yet.”

Speedo, which won the bidding for Ziegler, believes swimming with Fish gives her girl-next-door appeal, particularly with 12-year-old girls—the company’s biggest customers for racing suits.

“She hasn’t come out of a monster swim program that’s always churning out Olympic champions,” says Craig Brommers, head of marketing at Speedo. “She is someone kids can look up to and say, ‘I could be the next Kate Ziegler.’ ”

Ziegler enrolled last year at George Mason University, lived in a dorm with freshmen swimmers, and trained frequently with the university team—though as a pro, she can’t compete.

Benecki’s son Steven was also a George Mason freshman and was part of the 800-meter freestyle relay that won the conference championship. The three Benecki boys swim with Fish but have seen less of their father as Ziegler’s training and travel have increased.

“They’re happy that I’m distracted and I don’t dwell on them all the time,” Benecki says with a laugh. “It’s a safety valve so that I’m not too intense on them.”

Ziegler has been working with national-team coaches and is more involved in designing her Fish workouts: “Ray’s definitely started to realize that I’m not that same little naive 13-year-old, the kid who did everything I was told.”

Benecki, who has impressed national-team coaches with his training innovations, has earned a staff spot for several big meets. He introduces to Fish what he’s soaked up at these rarefied levels—as well as what’s he’s learned from working with his first world-class swimmer.

“Kate’s teaching me more than I’ve been able to teach her,” Benecki says.

Ziegler’s world record last month at a California meet confirmed that the partnership works. At that meet, she also set personal-best times in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter freestyle races. That kind of performance suggests that if Ziegler is crying at the Olympics next summer, those will be tears of joy.

Though recruited by top colleges, Ziegler chose to stay home, attend George Mason University, and train with Benecki. “I think of him almost as a second dad,” she says.