The new Tara Kirk is less intense. She's found love. And, thanks to a fashion intervention, she's trendier. Now, she's eyeing a gold medal to go with all of those new clothes.

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The ever-serious Tara Kirk has disappeared before our eyes.

It’s evident at the dinner table, where she casually plucked a morsel from her fiancé’s plate one recent evening before continuing a discourse about the U.S. Olympic swim trials that begin Sunday in Omaha, Neb.

“I just can’t do the same things I did four years ago, but I can work smarter,” Kirk said. “Before I used to pound it out, do breaststroke all day long.”

Kirk, who turns 26 in July, is not the same intense swimmer from Bremerton who finished sixth in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Athens Games.

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“She definitely seems to have a much better ability to say, ‘I’ve accomplished so much already, I’m just trying to see how far I can take it,’ ” fiance Greg Sell said.

“That’s not to say I don’t get stressed now,” Kirk interrupted.

Sell: “Last time, she went to Colorado Springs for almost a month” to train at high altitude before the ’04 trials.”

Kirk: “Last time, the focus was on training; this time it’s more to be relaxed and be prepared mentally.”

Sell: “Last time, you thought you could do it, but this time you know you can do it.”

Last time, Kirk trained with the super-intense Richard Quick, her former Stanford coach who is now at Auburn.

Now she is with Stanford’s Lea Mauer, a 1992 Olympic backstroker whose approach is more mellow than her predecessor’s. And then there’s Sell, her constant companion. When shopping for organic vegetables at a Palo Alto farmer’s market on Sunday mornings they seem not so different than the other hip, twentysomethings on California Avenue.

Sell, who is working toward a doctorate from Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, brings out a side of Kirk that goes beyond the pool.

And in doing so, she is swimming better.

“A happy Tara is a fast Tara,” Mauer said.

Sell and Kirk met five years ago while living in the same Stanford dormitory.

“I thought he had beautiful, long legs,” Kirk said.

Sell doesn’t recall making an immediate impression — but he kept trying.

A romance blossomed. They plan to marry next year at a woodsy lodge in Poulsbo, not far from where Kirk grew up.

Marks of change

Kirk’s stylish bangs and fashionable clothes are another mark of change.

It happened last month with a fashion intervention at the Stanford pool. Friends and family banded together to get Kirk on TLC’s “What Not to Wear.”

On the show, which airs July 25, she received $5,000 to overhaul her wardrobe. The show’s hosts sent her on a two-day shopping spree in San Francisco. By the time she finished, Kirk was “shopped into the ground.”

The media appearances were fun, but the swimmer has narrowed her focus on the Olympics.

Qualifying for the Beijing Games has special meaning for Kirk, whose mother, Margaret, is Chinese American. She and sister Dana, also an elite swimmer, didn’t have strong ties to their Asian roots while growing up on Puget Sound.

“I know I am Chinese,” said Margaret, an electrical engineer who once served on the Bremerton School Board. “Tara doesn’t look Asian. For her, she had to discover it herself.”

Advancing to Beijing in the breaststroke won’t be easy. Besides Kirk, a silver medalist at last year’s world championships, the United States boasts Olympic gold medalists Megan Jendrick and Amanda Beard, American record-holder Jessica Hardy and NCAA champion Rebecca Soni. Only two will qualify in the 100 and the 200 events. Kirk’s chances are better in the 100 because of her speed.

Whoever reaches Beijing will have to contend with Australia’s five-time Olympic medalist Leisel Jones, the world-record holder in the 100 at 1 minute, 05.09 seconds. Kirk, who had her best time of 1:06.34 last year, is the only one to recently defeat Jones in the event.

“We just need to get Tara to the meet,” Mauer said. “Then Leisel will be nervous. It’s in Tara’s hands and she just needs to allow it to happen.”

“Stronger and better”

That meant releasing as much pressure as possible before the trials.

A few weeks ago, Kirk arrived unannounced at Mauer’s house to assess her coach’s fashion sense in an improvised “What Not to Wear” moment. Kirk hauled away six bags of clothing.

Mauer encourages Kirk to be well-rounded; to earn a master’s degree in anthropological sciences she wrote a thesis titled “Reflections: Using Avian Influenza to Investigate the Pandemic of 1918.”

“There are eight legs to Tara’s table,” Mauer said. “When she draws on all of those pieces, she is stronger and better than just Tara the swimmer.”

Kirk was a Rhodes scholar finalist in 2005 and ready to de-emphasize swimming until she failed to get the scholarship. One of the Rhodes’ panelists had asked Kirk, “Why are you doing this sport where 100th of a second makes the difference? You could be out there changing the world?”

Kirk took the question to heart and considered quitting swimming.

But Donald Kennedy, the former Stanford president, offered, “If I were your age and had this great swimming career in front of me, I wouldn’t give it up. It’s not like you’re going to lose brain power. So enjoy it. Live it up.”

And remember, a happy Tara is a fast Tara.

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