Hoff embarking on solo mission far from home

Swimming: While Katie Hoff, 15, competes for the U.S. in Athens, her parents will cheer her on from Abingdon.

Olympics

August 09, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MALLORCA, Spain - In some households, a 15-year-old who can operate the microwave is considered self-sufficient.

Then there's Katie Hoff.

The youngest member of the American delegation who is headed to the Athens Olympics, Hoff hasn't been home in Abingdon, Md., since early July. Her parents will follow the Games from there.

Hoff last saw her North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach on the morning of Aug. 1, when the U.S. swim team began a journey that crossed 10 time zones. In one five-day span, the nights' rest was spent in three beds and a jet.

"When you get this far, the challenge for most is that you have to do it on your own," coach Paul Yetter said. "Katie has bigger stuff in front of her. This is practice for the future, because she's getting ready to make more national teams. She has to get accustomed to doing this without her mom or me there."

The Olympics will be Hoff's first international meet, but she is aiming for more than the experience. The NBAC provided the platform that turned Michael Phelps into the most versatile swimmer ever, and Hoff has taken some big steps toward building that distinction among women.

In the 400-meter individual medley, no female in the world has gone faster than the 4 minutes, 37.67 seconds that earned Hoff a commanding win at the U.S. team trials last month in Long Beach, Calif. Four days later, she scared the American record with a mild upset in the 200 IM of Amanda Beard, who posted the world's leading time in the semifinals.

Yana Klochkova, a 22-year-old Romanian with a history of clutch performances, is the defending gold medalist in both events. Hoff, however, figures to go faster than she did at Long Beach, and at the least, she's expected to medal in both IMs.

A year ago, John and Jeanne Hoff uprooted their two children from Williamsburg, Va., in order to cut back on his business travel and improve their daughter's prospects in the sport. Katie and her brother are home-schooled, and Jeanne knows her daughter well enough to send her off to Athens on her own.

"It's not about the money," Jeanne Hoff said. "She's going with the Olympic family, around kids who are going to be so supportive. I don't want her to be worrying about us. I visited with a 1988 Olympian, and there were no cell phones or e-mail then."

Hoff's preparations never included the assumption that her parents would go to Athens.

"My mom has not left me totally dependent upon her," Katie said. "I've been to zone trips by myself, and I know that's not the same, but I just try to do what I do at home, just without my parents. My mom has never done everything for me, so I guess I had some practice there."

Hoff spoke two days ago, between double sessions on a Mediterranean isle where the American swim team sought a week of solitude in between processing in Athens and the Olympics themselves.

After the trials, the U.S. team made camp at Stanford University, where Hoff got a reminder of the athleticism that runs in her blood.

Both of her parents earned degrees there, and Katie was born at Stanford Hospital on June 3, 1989. Her mother was an ace basketball player who still holds the Cardinal record for career scoring average. Katie was on the field - in a carrier on her father's back - when her mom was inducted into the Stanford Hall of Fame with a class that included John Elway.

"I saw my mom's name on the Hall of Fame list, and that was cool," Hoff said.

That was on Family Day at Stanford, when one of Jeanne's friends from the Bay Area served as surrogate mom.

Katie's godmother, meanwhile, offers a lesson about the vagaries of being an Olympian.

Jeanne Ruark Hoff was a freshman at Stanford in 1979, when she entertained Mary Osborne, a recruit from Billings, Mont. Osborne played one year of basketball at Stanford. Better known for her ability to toss a javelin, she shut up Elway one day by tossing the spear some 200 feet toward him.

Osborne finished third at the U.S. trials in 1980, the year the Americans boycotted the Moscow Olympics.

"That was explained to me two or three years ago," Hoff said. "I couldn't even think of making the Olympic team and having someone say, `Oh sorry, you can't go.' That must have been devastating."

Mary Osborne Andrews, who resides in San Diego, saw her goddaughter swim for the first time the day she won the 400 IM at the trials. "That," Andrews said, "was a wonderful experience."

The medal ceremony that followed resonated across generations.

Americans Donna de Varona (1964) and Claudia Kolb (1968) won the first Olympic 400 IMs for women. Tracy Caulkins, like Andrews a lost Olympian in 1980, won gold four years later, but no American has claimed the event since Janet Evans, in 1988.

How good was Evans? The world record she set in the 400 freestyle at the Seoul Olympics still stands, older than Hoff.

"At the trials, I had to remind Katie that she had just broken Janet's U.S. open [on American soil] record," Yetter said.

Hoff will digest the history later. She has enough on her plate, tracking down Klochkova and trying to keep up with a team that ranges from her to 31-year-old Jenny Thompson.

Does it feel like she has 21 big sisters?

"And brothers," Hoff said. "It's fun, because I've never had a big brother or sister. They've teased me relentlessly. I fell down the steps at Stanford, and they make fun of me because of that. I don't want to tell the other stuff they've gotten on me about, because it's too embarrassing."

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