Nineteen years ago, Janet Evans set a world record in the 1500-meter freestyle that, at least until this year, had been the oldest swimming record in the books. On Wednesday, she shared a pool with the young woman who broke her record.
Kate Ziegler is 19 years old; she hadn’t even been born when Evans set her record. But as Ziegler grew up and became increasingly serious about swimming in distance events, Evans became her role model.
“It was amazing to break the record of my idol,” Ziegler said as she stood waist-deep in a pool on the Plaza at Rockefeller Center with Evans and TODAY’s Natalie Morales.
Evans, an NBC Sports analyst who won three gold medals in 1988 in the Seoul Summer Games — and added a gold and silver in 1992 in Barcelona — remains one of the greatest female swimmers in U.S. history.
She first met Ziegler in 2004 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Ziegler, who was just 16 at the time, didn’t make that team. But in the past two years, she’s blossomed into the best in the nation at 400 and 800 meters and the world record holder at 1500 meters.
“I’m so excited,” she had told Morales during an earlier segment in the pool with Natalie Coughlin, who won two golds, two silvers and one bronze at the 2004 Athens Games (and is looking to add to that total in Beijing).
“Ever since I was a little kid, it’s been a dream to go to the Olympics. I’m so excited,” Ziegler added.
Coughlin, 24, is a sprinter, and her best event is the 100-meter backstroke. “Hopefully, it’ll still be my event,” she said. “I think I’m stronger than what I was in Athens. Hopefully, I’ll get stronger in the next year.”
Evans was just 16 when she was the heroine of Seoul. She still holds the world record in the 800-meter freestyle, set 18 years ago.
She said there’s more pressure than ever on athletes.
“The most important thing for Kate to do is focus on what made her successful and not let all the hoopla going into the games get to her.”
Said Ziegler, “It’s going to be my first Olympics, so it will definitely be a learning experience. I just hope to swim well, represent the U.S. as best I can, go best times and just have a great time.”