On a recent sun-drenched day, Zoey Zeller swam laps with the South Valley Makos club team at Live Oak High School. Save for some good-natured ribbing she received from her fellow swimmers after talking to a reporter, Zeller blended in with the rest of her teammates.
Unpretentious and humble, Zeller has distinguished herself as a swimmer to watch from a national perspective. By competing in the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials last month in Omaha, it marked one of the few times in the last quarter century a swimmer from the South County/San Benito County area has ever accomplished that feat.
“It was definitely a great experience,” the incoming Gilroy High junior said. “It was cool to be in that environment and race against really fast people.”
The 16-year-old Zeller raced in the 200-meter breaststroke, finishing 13th in Wave 1 (the slower of the two Wave divisions). She clocked a time of 2 minutes, 34.82 seconds in the morning preliminaries before finishing with a 2:35.18 in the evening finals. Zeller also got to time trial the 200 individual medley and the 100 breaststroke, nailing a personal-record (PR) in the latter event.
Zeller felt like she did well considering she was swimming the 200 breaststroke for just the third time. She also gained experience of being in a high-stakes setting, something that should serve her well as she looks to move up some positions in the 2024 Trials.
“I was definitely a little more nervous than usual, which is something to get used to, swimming in that environment,” she said. “I’m definitely working towards ranking higher in the next couple of years.”
Zeller said she’ll have to shave approximately 10 seconds off her 200 breaststroke time to make the U.S. Olympic team, which will vie with Australia for bragging rights as the world’s top swim country in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. What some may view as a daunting task, Zeller sees as a golden opportunity.
“In the next few years, I’m hoping to improve a lot,” she said. “It’ll be a lot of hard work and dedication, but I’m up for it.”
Tom Lebherz, who runs South Valley Makos and coaches Zeller, said his star pupil is just as good as Jarod Hatch, the former Sobrato High standout who recently graduated from Cal Berkeley and helped lead the men’s swimming team to a fourth straight Pacific-12 conference championship.
“Zoey is very focused, a good athlete, very competitive and works hard,” said Lebherz, who is also the new Live Oak High swim coach. “She’s one of the top five breaststrokers in Northern California. I’m receiving phone calls from Indiana and Cal and have dozens of colleges looking at her. They all want her—she’s that good.”
Zeller has a tremendous work ethic, training twice a day, six days a week. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Zeller’s family moved to Gilroy four years ago. She started swimming year-round at age 8 and hasn’t looked back since. Olympic hopefuls who have the talent must complement that with a willingness to show up and put in the time, even if sometimes they don’t feel like it.
“Every so often I feel like I could be getting tired of it, but I really enjoy practicing and enjoy the grind,” she said. “That’s why I think I enjoy being here everyday.”
Of course, Covid put an obstacle in her plans, as she was kept out of a pool for three months in 2020. In the last five months, however, Zeller has found her rhythm practicing twice a day. Lebherz said Zeller can improve on her turns, a crucial part of a race where swimmers can either gain or lose precious seconds against the field of competitors.
“We’re going to work on a lot of the little things,” Lebherz said. “She’s going to get a lot faster. I’ve been to the Olympic Trials (as a coach) since 1980, and she’s one of my better ones.”