By Kevin Van Valkenburg
June 29, 2008
"Something I value is humility," she said recently. "I can't stand cocky."
You can present her with all the evidence. You can remind her that she's regarded as one of the best female swimmers in the world. You can bring up her six world championship medals. You can read back to her all the praise that coaches and competitors tend to throw her way each meet, and at most she'll smile and greet it with a shrug.
Even today, with many predicting a huge performance from Hoff as the U.S. Olympic trials begin at the Qwest Center, she's still not willing to concede a thing.
"I don't feel at every meet I'm going to rock the house," Hoff said recently. "You can't ever assume anything, even though a lot of people have already assumed that I'm going to make the team. But it's almost like a curse to be seen as confident. Like, 'Beijing, oh, that, yeah.' You still have to swim the race. I can't be thinking about Beijing when I still have a seven-day meet to do before that."
Still, it's harder for the rest of the swimming world to temper its enthusiasm for what Hoff could do this week. Her development the past year has been jaw-dropping, especially in the sprints. Although Hoff has been one of the world's best in the 200-meter and the 400-meter individual medley events since 2004, she has complemented her endurance and versatility with raw speed. She's a threat to make the Olympic team in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 freestyles, as well as both IMs.
"Katie's speed has really come on," U.S. coach Mark Schubert said. "We didn't really see that from her before [the world championships last year in] Melbourne, but as soon as she went 54 seconds in the 100 free, everybody else knew they were really in trouble. Now she can use that speed at the beginning of a race to get out fast, or she can use it at the end to mow you down."
Schubert said he hasn't seen that kind of versatility in a female swimmer since Shirley Babashoff, who won four silver medals in the 1976 Olympics (200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyles, and the 400 medley relay).
"Shirley had the perfect combination of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, which gives you both endurance and speed," Schubert said. "I think Michael Phelps and Katie have both been blessed with that same combination."
Although Hoff doesn't care for overconfidence, she does relish competition, and she'll get her chance this week in the 200 IM and the 800 freestyle. She says she has been looking forward to racing Kate Ziegler in the 800 for several months and would like to reclaim her American record in the 200 IM, which Natalie Coughlin snatched away this month. Hoff heard about Coughlin's swim in Los Angeles right before she was about to race, and she couldn't help but get fired up.
"I was in the ready room, and someone said, 'Did you hear? Did you hear?' 'Yeah. Thanks. I did hear,'" Hoff said she responded that day.
As she retells the story, it's easy to pick up a hint of a cold intensity in her voice that she doesn't often reveal.
"It's only going to help me," she said. "We can push each other to great times."
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