OMAHA, Neb.—At some point over the past several years - it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when - Katie Hoff figured out a way to channel all her nervous pre-race energy into a frenetic, yet disciplined, routine.
When she stands on the starting block, she practices her stroke, then adjusts her goggles. She fidgets with her swimsuit, then tugs on her swim cap.
Goggles. Swimsuit. Swim cap.
Adjust. Fidget. Tug.
It can seem chaotic to the casual observer, but watch it a few times and you realize how businesslike the routine is. By the time the race starts, there is only one thing left on her checklist.
Hoff cruised to another victory at the U.S. Olympic trials last night, easily winning the 400-meter freestyle final in 4 minutes, 2.32 seconds to earn an Olympic berth. It wasn't a world record and it wasn't even the fastest time Hoff has posted this year (4:02.20). It was just another smooth, controlled performance from a swimmer who is clearly at the top of her game. And as routine as it felt, it was still the fourth-fastest time ever.
The 19-year-old Towson resident was in fourth after the first 200 meters, but her last 100 meters were her fastest splits of the race; when everyone else was getting tired, Hoff was shifting gears and pulling away.
It wasn't very different from her swim Sunday night, when she set a world record in the 400 meter individual medley.
"I probably wasn't out as fast as I was hoping [over the first 200], but I think I brought it back home well," Hoff said.
After the race, Hoff's main competition, Kate Ziegler, reached across the lane rope and offered up a hug. Ziegler finished second with a time of 4:03.92, but she clearly understood this was Hoff's race to win. They are poised for a major showdown later in the week in the 800-meter freestyle, Ziegler's strongest Olympic event.
"She said, 'Good job,' and she congratulated me on my world record last night, which was really nice of her," Hoff said.
Hoff and Ziegler have jostled for American supremacy in the middle-distance events over the past year, with Hoff pulling ahead recently. Ziegler owns the world record in the 1,500 meters, but that isn't an Olympic event for women, so her best chance at gold will be in the 800. Hoff owns the second-fastest time in the world in that event this year (8:19.22), behind England's Rebecca Addington (8:19.70).
Hoff's coach, Paul Yetter, said he and Hoff have all but decided to choose the 800 freestyle over the 200 backstroke for her Olympic program.
"The [200 backstroke] is such a good event for her, I just wish we had another day [to rest]," Yetter said. "She could do it, but it's just not in the cards."
Hoff said she didn't feel fully rested when she came to the pool last night. It hardly mattered.
"I think I was a little sore this morning," she said. "I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. But I got a little nap this afternoon, thankfully."
Michael Phelps got a nap in yesterday as well, and he and Ryan Lochte positioned themselves for another epic showdown tonight by finishing first and second in separate semifinals of the 200-meter freestyle. The two friends kicked off the trials on Sunday by both breaking the world record in the 400-meter individual medley.
Once again, the difference between their times was virtually irrelevant (.03 of a second), especially for a semifinal, but Lochte's 1:45.61 was a tick faster, the fastest time in the world this year.
Phelps, who celebrated his 23rd birthday yesterday, said he had no evening celebration plans. He simply wanted to go home and rest. Lochte, though, acknowledged he had other ideas when asked what he was giving Phelps for his birthday.
"A pair of girls," Lochte said.
"Really?" Phelps said, when reporters informed him of Lochte's comments. "If that's true, then they haven't arrived yet."