Different strokes for Hoff, Phelps

Two share success at Nationals, but approach varies


IRVINE, CALIF. -- As the sun went down Saturday night, bringing the USA Swimming National Championships to a close, two of the world's best swimmers attempted to unwind in two distinctly different ways.

On one side of the William Woollett Jr. Aquatic Center, Katie Hoff, 17, stood in street clothes, earnestly watching the last race of the day, the men's 400-meter medley relay. When it was over, she listened closely to a story being told by her coach, Paul Yetter, then laughed at the punch line. Boys her age occasionally drifted by to say hello, to flirt and vie for her attention, however fleeting. In the fading light, Hoff looked relaxed, happy, like so many carefree American teenagers, lost in the joys of a cool summer evening.

On the other side of the complex, Michael Phelps was climbing back into the practice pool with a frown on his face, his work for the day not quite complete. Warming his muscles down, backstroking slowly from one end of the pool to the other, Phelps gazed skyward. Though he was surrounded by dozens of other swimmers and was being watched by numerous others from the stands, he seemed, by his own design, to be very much alone.

It would be disingenuous, however, to study those two snapshots and conclude that Hoff's week at the national championships was a success, while Phelps' was a disappointment. Hoff did post personal best times in all of her events - highlighted by her victories in the 200 and 400 individual medleys - but Phelps won five times and defeated his main rival, Ian Crocker, in the 100 butterfly for the first time in several tries.

Instead, Hoff's and Phelps' contrasting post-meet moods offered a small window into their competitive psyches and the way each swimmer will likely approach training during the two-year buildup to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which includes the Pan Pacific Championships (Aug. 15-18) in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the FINA World Championships next year in Melbourne, Australia (March 25-April 1).

For Hoff, who is home-schooled and trains at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Yetter has learned that it's important to keep things light, to counterbalance the daily grind and pressure of training with snippets of fun. And so Hoff will swim at Pan Pacs in two weeks, then take some time off to recharge before she gets back in the pool and begins to focus on the world championships.

"Katie absolutely met my expectations," Yetter said after the meet. "She did some lifetime best times, which at that level, at a big meet like this, is not easy. Once you get to the highest level, it's like a pyramid effect. It's harder and harder to get the best times. But the sport is about winning races, and she did that, too. That's the name of the game. If you win races, the times will take care of themselves."

For Phelps, the strategy will be somewhat different. While Hoff generally tries not to think about world records, Phelps is driven by them. The 21-year-old from Rodgers Forge, who now lives and trains in Ann Arbor, Mich., as a member of Club Wolverine, said last week that he usually tries to peek at the scoreboard during his races, eager to see where he stands against the clock and history. His training schedule is more relentless, more fierce, than virtually anyone else in the sport, and he and coach Bob Bowman will likely spend the next few weeks tweaking little things, such as Phelps' turns, attempting to shave precious seconds off the clock.

"I think [U.S. Nationals] kind of proves that he's back to near his top level, and I'm interested to see what happens the next two weeks," Bowman said. "I'm not going to say this meet was everything we hoped for, but it's certainly not disappointing. There have been a lot of minor hiccups and health issues this year that he's had to deal with, but he's handled them fine. That's not an excuse."

Phelps said his back was bothering him some earlier this year, which limited how much training he could do, but he and Bowman say that problem is behind him.

"We've had a few ups and downs this year, a few things we could have done without," Phelps said. "A few things we had to fix. It's just little small things. It was a decent week, but not a horrible week by any means. The things that happened this week will definitely help me get ready for next summer."

"After Pan Pacs, he'll be training as hard as he can for as long as he can," Bowman said. "He'll swim in a few meets, but our only objective will be the world championships from now on."

Hoff will turn her focus to the world championships as well, but not before she makes one more serious run at the world record in the 200 IM at the Pan Pacs. The record time of 2 minutes, 9.72 seconds, set by Wu Yanyan of China in 1997, nearly fell this week when Hoff set an American record with 2:10.05.

"Obviously when you're that close to a world record, you're going to think about it," Hoff said. "But I'm just going to keep working on some things with turns and stuff and see how it plays out."

Both athletes will have some minor distractions as the year unfolds. Hoff is in her final year of high school, and Phelps, like any star athlete, still has occasional sponsorship obligations to fulfill. But for the most part, the next seven months leading up to the world championships will be the calm before the storm.

Phelps and Hoff will likely be the face of U.S. men's and women's Olympic teams in Beijing in 2008, and the year-long buildup to the Games promises to be exhausting and hectic. After the Pan Pacs, however, both swimmers will likely slip quietly below the media radar.

"It's just good for me right now to get all this racing in," Phelps said. "It lets me see where we are, and hopefully next summer at world champs, I'll be ready to take on a larger program."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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