For four days, the menu has been propped up in Katie Hoff's hotel room, opened to the picture of a gooey slice of cheesecake smothered in caramel and chocolate.

Swiped from a nearby restaurant - perpetrator unknown - it has served as a motivational tool as good as any devised by Vince Lombardi. Hoff made herself this promise: Three best times at the Mutual of Omaha Swimvitational and a slice of that cake was hers.

At first glance, the goal might have seemed beyond reach. None of Hoff's six events was one she will swim at the Olympic team trials here in three weeks.

Yet each of her first two days brought her closer to the dessert plate, with personal-best marks in the 100-meter backstroke and 200-meter breaststroke. Then, yesterday, she missed a personal best in the 50-meter freestyle by .01 of a second, putting all the pressure on her final event, the 200-meter backstroke.

No worries. Towson's Hoff led wire-to-wire in posting a time of 2 minutes, 9.95 seconds, .36 of a second better than her old mark.

Wearing a big grin and shouting "cheesecake" as she descended from the pool deck, Hoff said she wasn't worried after coming so close in the 50 free.

"I had a pretty good swim in the morning," she said of the 200 backstroke preliminary. "I was ready to go and rested."

Dinner last night with teammates would most definitely end with cheesecake, and the menu, Hoff promised, would find its way back to the restaurant.

Dan Madwed, also a member of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, won the 200-meter butterfly with a time of 1:58.43.

"I always just take it out and die. I'm trying to learn to swim more like Michael [Phelps]," Madwed said, referring to Phelps' knack for strong finishes.

He said he will huddle with coach Paul Yetter "to see what we have to tweak and come back here in three weeks. Definitely, there's plenty of time to go."

With a flourish that included firing imaginary six-shooters before he stepped up on the starting blocks, Gary Hall Jr., the 33-year-old with 10 Olympic medals, announced that he is a serious contender to make the U.S. squad going to Beijing.

His time of 22.20 in the 50-meter freestyle was second only to Nathan Adrian's 22.01.

Afterward, Hall praised Adrian, a teammate at The Race Club, and then promised that with some rest leading up to the Olympic trials he'll post "a big drop" in times.

"Some people think I'm a good swimmer. My specialty is resting. I rest with the best of them," Hall said, smiling.

The meet was perhaps most memorable for what happened outside the Qwest Center early yesterday morning. With athletes fast asleep, tornado warning sirens sounded, and a twister, with winds approaching 135 mph, devastated a residential neighborhood.

Some athletes, such as Hoff, raced for the lowest floors of their hotels. Scary?

"A little bit, yeah," Hoff said. "We had to climb back up to the fifth floor after that."

Others stayed put.

"This was a new natural disaster for me," quipped Hall, who lives in Florida. "I'm used to hurricanes, which are like tornadoes times 1,000, so I went back to bed."

candy.thomson @baltsun.com