Showing strokes of potential genius

Swimming: Katie Hoff, 15, makes waves at the U.S. world trials, spurring talk that she might one day be the female equivalent of Michael Phelps.


April 06, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Abingdon's Katie Hoff has grown physically by at least a half-inch, approaching 5 feet 9, over the months since the 2004 Summer Olympics, and this past week, during the U.S. world championship trials, she has grown in stature within swimming, too.

Yesterday, after Hoff, 15, had finished her last preliminary qualifying effort in the 200-meter freestyle, Jack Bauerle, coach of the American women's world championships team, was trying to deflect questions about her being the new female Michael Phelps.

"At her young age," Bauerle said, "she is just swimming, just enjoying the sport. But she's going to be a force down the road. It has been great watching her here. Right now, she's better than she was last August."

In August, Hoff was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team and suffering from such anxiety she became physically ill. But she recovered to make the final in the 200 individual medley (she finished seventh) and has been growing in maturity ever since.

This week, she stood in her wet swimsuit giving interviews beside the cool-down pool so happy at her performances she didn't even notice the goose bumps rising on her skin.

"Coming in here, I just wanted to make a relay," she said. "I never dreamed I'd be saying, `Oh, I don't know which events I'll swim.' It's nice to have choices."

Hoff, like Phelps on the men's side, dominated the women's events. She qualified for the U.S. national team in five events, winning the 400 IM, 200 freestyle and 200 IM and finishing second in the 200 backstroke, which means she has qualified for all of those events and the 800 freestyle relay.

Yesterday, she was ninth fastest in qualifying for the 100-meter freestyle, which means she does not qualify for that event. So, last night, Hoff declined to swim in the B final.

"Katie Hoff is a wunderkind," said Rowdy Gaines, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in 1984, U.S. Swimming official and television commentator. "I have a feeling she won't peak for three or four more years -- perfect timing for her.

"We need a Michael Phelps on the women's side, and she has the potential to be that superstar. She comes from a great gene pool. She's not afraid to work hard. And she's only 15. She reminds me of Tracy Caulkins -- who, in my opinion, is the greatest all-around swimmer in history. She has that much talent."

To compare Hoff to Caulkins, the Babe Ruth of women's swimming, at this point could seem premature. But even Bauerle, who said all the young women on the national team have a lot of improving to do, doesn't discount it.

"She has that much potential," he said. "It's a lot to put on a young lady, comparing her to Caulkins. But Katie is a very settled young lady. A lot of stuff just rolls off her back. At this point, if she gets even a little better, it's pretty darn good."

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