By John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, December 13. ONE of the great things about sports is debate, the chance to argue a point with documented support and passion. Rarely is there ever a consensus opinion, which allows the merry-go-round of dispute to continue in circles. But, in our sport, there's at least one area that is inarguable: Greatest female distance swimmer in history.
When Janet Evans stepped on the blocks during her prime years, there was no doubt she would get to the wall ahead of the competition. Evans' domination was so impressive that a pair of her long-course standards remain on the books, her 8:16.22 performance in the 800 free from 1989 and her 1,500 freestyle mark of 15:52.10 from 1988.
These days, however, Kate Ziegler is making a serious push toward joining the ranks only known by Evans. No, we're not stating that Ziegler is currently on a level with Evans, simply that she is traveling a path in that direction. Whether the future allows her to locate that level won't be determined for some time. If nothing else, it's going to be an enjoyable watch.
Over the weekend, Ziegler furthered her already spectacular resume by setting two more American records in the short-course yardage format. Racing at the Tom Dolan Invitational at George Mason University, Ziegler set national standards in the 1,000 free (9:21.57) and 1,650 free (15:37.17). Her effort in the longer race took down Evans' mark of 15:39.14, set in 1990.
Combined with her 500 free record of 4:33.35, set earlier in the year, Ziegler now owns all three short-course yardage records for the distance-free disciplines. Training under Ray Benecki with The Fish, Ziegler also owns a share of the national-scholastic record in the 200 freestyle. Obviously, she has had a banner short-course career.
Of course, the measure of greatness revolves around the results produced at the international level in a long-course setting. In that realm, Ziegler has also flourished. At the 2005 World Championships in Montreal, the teenager roared to gold-medal showings in the 800 free and 1,500 free. Those outings confirmed Ziegler's ability shine on the big stage. Enhancing her standing, Ziegler was more sensational during August's Pan Pacific Championships, where she became the second-fastest performer in history in the metric mile (15:55.01).
In a few months, Ziegler will look to repeat her Montreal achievements when she competes at the 2007 World Champs in Melbourne. There, she'll give a run at Evans' world marks in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles. Afterward, her focus will turn to 2008 and the quest for a gold medal at the Beijing Olympic Games.
Ziegler, too, has proven herself in the 400 freestyle, evidenced by her win at Summer Nationals in 4:05.75. Obviously, there's a ways to go before Ziegler can think about challenging world-record holder Laure Manaudou, but the potential is there. The possibility of earning an 800 free relay slot is also an attainable goal.
Bottom line: Kate Ziegler, the owner of a tremendous work ethic and undeniable talent, is soaring up history's charts. And, perhaps one day, a debate will range as to which woman is the greatest distance freestyler in history.