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Sports Olympics

Hoff's gold standard

Six events, five gold medals.

And if Katie Hoff's fingernails had been just a smidgen longer yesterday morning, she would have made it a clean sweep of her events at the Missouri Grand Prix.

By the end of the meet, Hoff, of Towson, already owner of the world record in the 400-meter individual medley and the American record in the 200 IM, added two more U.S. marks.

Her standout performance and versatility has U.S. swimming officials envisioning Hoff and Michael Phelps leading the charge in individual and relay events at the Beijing Olympics in August.

In the 800 freestyle yesterday morning, Hoff was first on the pool deck, first in the blocks and first to the finish, with a time of 8 minutes, 27.32 seconds - four seconds off her personal best.

Less than two hours later, she placed second in the 200 IM (2:10.23), .15 of a second behind Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, who set a world record in the 200 backstroke Saturday.

Despite that slight disturbance in her force field, Hoff and coach Paul Yetter said they were pleased with the outcome.

"It was a great meet for Katie," Yetter said. "She's done a lot of her best times for this point in the season, and, in fact, I think all of her times were her best times for this stage of training. So we're really happy for what she's done."

The highlight for Hoff?

"The 400 free," she said, her face lighting up with the memory of the American record she set Saturday morning. With a time of 4:02.20, Hoff bested the longest-standing U.S. mark, set by Janet Evans 19 years ago.

Mark Schubert, the head coach of USA Swimming, said Hoff's performance, particularly in the 100 freestyle, "put a huge smile on my face" because of the possibilities for her in individual and relay events.

"She's kind of taken things into a new orbit," said Schubert, who coached Evans and three dozen other Olympians. "I think her and Paul do a real good job ... working at all events. She's obviously very talented at many events, and Paul hasn't ignored any of the possibilities."

Hoff said that while she has experience in swimming double events (at the FINA World Championships last year, Hoff swam a 200 IM semifinal race and less than a half-hour later swam the 400 freestyle), having the six Missouri events packed into five days was good training.

"I think it was crucial for me to experience that because I am going to have to do doubles, and at trials, I'm going to have to do 200 IM and 200 free," she said. "The way we train, it's definitely possible to swim fast; it just requires me to be mentally there.

"Every event, Paul was like, 'That was good, now refocus on the next,' " Hoff said. "Now that the meet's over, I can kind of look back and be happy."

Schubert said having a full plate can be good for an athlete on two levels. "It takes the pressure off her best events because she always has something to work toward. If she ever has a bad swim, she's always got another event coming up. And secondly, as an IM swimmer, in my opinion, it's exactly the right approach."

Though she has challengers such as Coventry, Hoff has been widely recognized as the world's best female IM swimmer for nearly three years. She has won two straight world championships in the 200 IM and the 400 IM and owns the world record in the 400 IM.

But it is her freestyle times that might get people's attention on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. France's Laure Manaudou is the world-record holder in the 200 freestyle and the 400 freestyle. She has years of international experience and will be the favorite in Beijing. But Hoff's 400 freestyle - just .07 behind the world record Manaudou set in 2006 - has earned her the right to be in the conversation.

For his part, Yetter downplayed a potential showdown and said Hoff's improving times are normal for someone who was a finalist in the 200 freestyle and the 400 freestyle at the FINA world championships last year in Melbourne, Australia.

"Manaudou's the best," Yetter said. "She's the Olympic champion and the world champion and the world-record holder. ... Katie's getting closer to her times, but she's not there yet."

Hoff and Yetter have yet to settle on which events she will target. At this point, though, it's likely she will enter the 200 backstroke and 800 free in addition to the 200 and 400 free and 200 and 400 IM at trials.

"We're just going to keep it on the schedule and see how it works," Yetter said. "It's nice to have choices. It'll shake out the way it shakes out. Whatever happens is going to be a good event for her. We feel it's an advantage to have an option."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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