For several days leading up to the U.S. nationals, Katie Hoff swore she felt better. Sure, a respiratory illness earlier this month had wiped her out, forcing her to nearly drop out of a meet in California, and she was coughing nonstop. But with rest, she said, she felt like herself again. She was ready to prove she was still one of the world's elite swimmers.
Midway through the women's 400-meter freestyle Tuesday night, it was clear that something wasn't right. The 20-year-old from Towson didn't look anything like the woman who won a silver and two bronze medals 11 months ago at the Olympics in Beijing.
She was struggling to hold on to fourth place, and looked tired and slow. It didn't get any better over the final 200 meters. The powerful closing speed Hoff has used to win countless races never materialized. When she touched the wall in 4 minutes, 12.34 seconds, the result seemed almost surreal.
Sixth place. Her time in the finals was actually two seconds slower than her qualifying time in the morning. Certainly, the majority of it was physical. Her coach, Bob Bowman, said as much after the race.
"Katie has been struggling," Bowman said. "Physically, she's still not right. ... She only stopped coughing about 10 days ago. She was so sick in Santa Clara, we contemplated not swimming here."
But he conceded that some of the problem might be mental.
Hoff has been trying to change her stroke a bit, and she's been training differently since she started working with Bowman. It's clear she's not confident. As she fell behind, her form got progressively worse, Bowman said. And everything began to snowball for her inside the Indiana University Natatorium.
"I think, psychologically and physically, she's just not there," Bowman said. "It happens to everybody. Katie has never had a meet like this. I think she'll learn from it and move on. She'll fight back."
This one clearly stung though. Hoff declined to speak with the news media after her swim. When asked how she was dealing with the disappointment, Bowman said, "not too well right now."
Eleven months ago in Beijing, Britain's Rebecca Adlington out-touched Hoff at the wall in this event by .07of a second. But now, Hoff is the sixth-fastest American, trailing Alison Schmitt, Close Sutton, Caroline Burckle, Alyssa Anderson and Amber McDermott.
Is that close finish in the Olympic final still lingering?
"That definitely plays into it," Bowman said. "You can't have something like that and think that it doesn't affect you."
Hoff is in danger of not making the U.S team for the world championships, to be held this month in Rome. She's likely to drop out of the 800-meter freestyle, which means her remaining chance will be in the 200 free.
She decided she didn't want to swim either individual medley this year, even though she won both at the world championships in 2005 and 2007.
"Part of it is that it doesn't matter how hard you train or how many ridiculously horrible IM sets you do, the race does not get any easier," Hoff said before the meet when asked about her decision to back away from the individual medley events. "It might get a little bit easier, but it's still going to hurt more than any event out there. I get the most nervous for it, I have the most pain and it's just not a pleasant event."
Hoff's puzzling performance almost overshadowed a great night by Elizabeth Pelton, another North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer. But Pelton, who is just 15 years old, conjured up memories of Hoff at that age by finishing second in the women's 200-meter individual medley behind Julia Smit, meaning she'll be headed to Rome.
Pelton jumped out to a big lead and was under world-record pace for much of the race, and she was able to hold on despite a mediocre breast stroke to touch in 2 minutes, 11.03 seconds.
"When someone told me I was under world-record pace, I was like, 'Wow,' " said Pelton, who has been with NBAC since 2005. "Personally, I could go home right now and be happy. That's the most nervous I've been."
Her coach, Paul Yetter, who coached Hoff through her teenage years, said he wasn't surprised by Pelton's performance. Pelton has been breaking age-group records for several years and is emerging as one of the fastest in the world at any age.
"She has so much speed, and she's really a tough and determined swimmer," Yetter said. "As soon as she touched the wall, we all looked at the clock, we were all so excited and pumped up. Liz is such a hard worker, and she's fun. We have a ton of fun feeding off her energy."
Note: Beijing Olympians Ryan Lochte (400 IM), Christine Magnuson (100 butterfly), Peter Vanderkaay (400 free), Mark Gangloff (100 breaststroke), Schmitt and Smit all earned trips to Rome by winning titles. Smit and Gangloff set American records.