Baltimore's other champ

A more mature Hoff is determined to win

Beijing 2008 -- Opening Ceremonies Today

August 08, 2008|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN REPORTER

For now, Katie Hoff is content to be the other swimmer from Baltimore, the one not named Phelps, the one without the massive public relations machine and Olympic gold.

What she's less satisfied with is the image from four years ago in Athens of a skinny little girl of 15, the youngest member of the U.S. team, who faltered under the suffocating pressure and hype of the Summer Games.

Since 2004, Hoff has vacuumed up world records and titles and endorsement deals that have allowed her to drive a luxury car and buy her first home, but what Hoff really wants is to prove once and for all that she is the world's most versatile and dominant woman swimmer. After Hoff's back-to-back victories in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley events at the U.S. swim trials, five-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin paid her the ultimate compliment, calling her teammate "a stud."

Hoff believes this is her moment, although she hopes to swim in two more Olympics after Beijing. She is set to compete in five individual events and one relay in Beijing, beginning tomorrow.

"I feel at peace with it. I feel good about what my goals are. Because I have a lot of events, it takes the pressure off me being focused on one chance to win a gold medal," she explains. "Going into each race it's not, 'OK, if it doesn't happen here, it's not going to happen.' It allows me to be a lot more relaxed and take each race one at a time."

Mark Schubert, head coach of the U.S. team, says Hoff's versatility - she was the only U.S. woman to qualify for all 13 events at the trials - gives him options in selecting relay teams and will help Hoff stay fresh and on top for years.

"There are strokes and distances that Katie hasn't fully explored yet. ... I suspect she'll continue to evolve beyond Beijing. That's an exciting prospect for the U.S. team," Schubert says.

At 19, Hoff isn't skinny anymore, and on a pool deck awaiting the start of a race she exudes a quiet sense of ownership. Although she still seems a tad wary of interviewers she doesn't know and fans who rush up to her at a competition, Hoff is warming to the spotlight.

"Katie's grown up," says her coach, Paul Yetter, who has trained her at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club since 2003. "She's mentally tough and physically ready. There's no comparison to the swimmer of 2004."

Sitting across from her at a Towson coffee shop as she nibbles at a breakfast panini and sips an iced mocha, it's easy to fall into a conversation about music and home decorating. Hoff laughs easily and tells self-deprecating stories. She cheerfully admits that teammates get the better of her when it comes to talking smack.

She endures questions about Michael Phelps, even though they never trained together - the greatest myth of the Phelps-Hoff story - and got to know each other well only after he moved to Michigan to train with his coach, Bob Bowman.

"Yeah, everybody says that. It makes a nice story, but ..." Hoff shrugs her shoulders and moves on.

But when the conversation turns to swimming, Hoff drops her smile, measures her words and draws a bead on the question with the same intensity she reserves for the finish line.

"I'm prepared. I'm in a different place now. I know what to expect," she says, pausing to take a bite of her sandwich. "I'm hungry."

A 'light-bulb idea'

Nothing in the early years would have pegged Katie Hoff as a future champion.

Her mother, Jeanne, played basketball for Stanford University and is still among the top scorers in school history. Her father, John, is a sports fan.

Jeanne Hoff swam while she was pregnant, but her toddler didn't even like getting her head wet in the tub for a shampoo.

The family moved from Arizona to Virginia in May 1994. A coach at the local pool coaxed the 5-year-old into the water and got her paddling. She joined the Williamsburg Aquatics Club and then the Typhoon Aquatics Club, where she began winning races, mainly because she hated to lose.

Hoff still holds some Virginia swimming records from her preteen and early teenage years.

In spring 2003, Jeanne Hoff began talking to Murray Stephens, founder of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Phelps trained.

Jeanne Hoff calls it a "light-bulb idea," not a calculated move. Her daughter was training with older teenage boys, and she wanted her in a group closer in age and goals. In June, the Hoffs traveled to Baltimore to scout housing and for some workouts.

By July, the Hoffs were packing their bags for Maryland.

Katie Hoff joined the NBAC but swam at a satellite training center in Harford County, not the pool in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Baltimore where Phelps worked out.

As part of a small group under Yetter, Hoff made tremendous strides, dropping about 10 seconds off her time in the 400 IM before the 2004 Olympic trials.

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