For a few days last month, Katie Hoff felt like Tom Sawyer, listening to the eulogies at her own funeral.
The experience was … surprisingly moving.
Though Hoff qualified for the Olympics at 15 and won three medals at 19, she'd struggled for years with the idea her career had somehow underwhelmed expectations. When she announced her retirement Dec. 14, however, she learned just how much warmth she'd engendered in the swimming community.
There were kind wishes from former teammates and mentors at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where the former Towson resident trained for both her Olympic appearances. There were respect-filled congratulations from Olympic teammates such as Amanda Beard and Gary Hall Jr. There was even a surprise message from an old Australian rival, who testified how much Hoff's multievent excellence had pushed her.
"The things people were saying were so amazing," Hoff said. "It was almost like being at your own funeral. Those messages made it a really fun way to go out."
Hoff, 26, did not get to end her career on her own terms. She was training aggressively for an Olympic comeback but was derailed by searing pain from what turned out to be blood clots in her lungs. She tried to resume her work after the clots dissipated, but lingering scar tissue reduced her breathing capacity just enough to rob her of world-class speed.
About a month before she announced it publicly, Hoff realized she'd never be able to push her boulder all the way back up the Olympic hill.
She knew it was time to move on from the sport that had defined her since grade school and to embrace a new life built around a prospective career in dietetics (the relationship between nutrition and health) and her recent marriage to former Michigan State football player Todd Anderson.
"I kept trying to push through, and I spent so many days feeling so frustrated," Hoff said via phone from her new home in Chicago. "Now I have so much more in my life to look forward to, and I can appreciate everything I did, really for the first time."
The story of Hoff's career inevitably turns back to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — simultaneously her signature meet and the one at which she was painted an underachiever. Even now, Hoff sounds uncertain how to feel about the events of that summer.
Because she won five races at Olympic trials and because she hailed from the same club in Mount Washington, Hoff was inevitably labeled the female Michael Phelps.
Even at the time, she told everyone this was ridiculous. Sure, she had won those five events, but she hadn't consistently smashed world records in them, as Phelps had in his favorite races.
But the narrative was too easy, especially at the height of Phelps fever, when Hoff's teammate was set to win a record eight gold medals.
Even looking back, Hoff doesn't regret the association. She always felt a charge walking into the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center and seeing the photos of NBAC's past Olympians on the wall.
"I loved that level of expectation," she said. "The way everybody was on point all the time."
She added to the club's legacy in Beijing, winning a silver medal and two bronze medals. She also swam a personal best in the 200-meter freestyle, finishing fourth.
But the six-event schedule exhausted her as did persistent bouts with nervousness. She was no female Phelps, and that caused many casual observers to dismiss her.
"The swim world didn't view it like that, but the public did," said Jack Roach, a longtime USA Swimming coach who developed a close relationship with Hoff. "And for someone Katie's age, that had to have an effect. That stigma was not natural and it didn't make sense."
Roach wished Hoff could understand then how much her peers liked and respected her.
"But she never did realize it," he said. "And I think a lot of that was due to age. Like any athlete, she was so much tougher on herself than anyone else was."
Hoff tried to avoid Google searches of her name in the aftermath, but when she did look, the reading wasn't fun.
"I didn't enjoy 2008," she acknowledged. "People always say, 'Oh, it must have been so great to go to two Olympics.' But I'm always like, 'No, it was stressful.'"
These days, she tries to look at the Beijing Olympics as the triumph they would have been for almost any other human on the planet.
"Sometimes, I'm like, 'Wait, I have a silver medal,' " she said, laughing at herself. "I'm hoping that five years from now, I'll be able to see it purely as this great accomplishment."
Unable to build on success
Hoff expected to get right back to work and be even better after a short post-Olympics break. She never guessed that instead, she'd rapidly sink to the lowest point of her career.
The swimmer who'd dominated Olympic trials in 2008 didn't qualify for a single event at the 2009 world championships. Her confidence was shot.
She left NBAC and Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, for a fresh start at Fullerton Aquatics in California. But as the 2012 Olympics approached, she shifted back to Paul Yetter, her coach when she was a teenage prodigy at NBAC. She swam well at times, but never recaptured her 2008 form.
"You either have it or you don't," she said. "And I did not have that same belief, that sense of control going into every race."
Hoff didn't qualify for the 2012 Games in London.
She remembers the hell of monitoring those Olympics from afar. She wanted to root for her good friend Allison Schmitt. But the one time she flipped on NBC's broadcast, she caught a replay of a 2008 race in which she faded from the lead.
"I was down in the basement crying for days after that," she said.
Swimming World magazine reported that Hoff retired in 2013, but that resulted from a misunderstanding between the publication and Yetter. In fact, Hoff took a break to attend classes at the University of Miami, uncertain what the future held.
"I could tell, based on some of the things she said, that she was still hungry," said Anderson, who had been through the experience of walking away from football after he went to preseason camp with the St. Louis Rams. "But she had to get to a point where she could stop resenting the sport."
Later that year, she helped coach a U.S. junior team in Dubai and found herself jealous of the kids in the pool. So she resolved to give her career one more shot, this time with Miami coach Andy Kershaw.
Her then-fiance, Anderson, supervised her fitness program.
He'd never seen any athlete push harder. If he mentioned Hoff had missed a pull-up as they walked home after a workout, she'd insist on going back to the gym and doing it.
Hoff approached several personal bests as she prepared for the 2014 nationals in California. But when she arrived at the meet, she felt tightness in her chest. An inconvenient cold perhaps?
No, the tightness evolved into a sharp pain in the back of her ribs the night before her first race.
"This is not good," she told Anderson as they awoke the next morning.
She swam slower than she'd hoped and that night at dinner, the stabbing pain grew so intense she had to leave the table in tears. Back at her hotel, she passed out face first onto her bed. Anderson considered calling an ambulance.
She scratched out of several events, hoping against hope that she'd heal up by her last race, the 200-meter individual medley. But she felt so awful when she jumped into the pool that she looked up at Anderson and Kershaw, hoping one of them would tell her it was OK to get out.
"It just felt unfair," said Roach, who was also there watching.
For weeks and weeks after the meet, no doctor could tell Hoff what was wrong. Finally, she learned of the blood clots in her lungs.
Doctors put her on blood thinners and said she'd recover. But when Hoff went to Mesa, Ariz., for the Arena Pro Swim Series event in April, her breathing troubles recurred. She then learned of the scar tissue in her lungs. The cycle of frustration continued with no end in sight.
Hoff finally knew it was time to move on.
"When you're trying to be the best in the world, if there's any doubt in your mind, it's probably not going to happen," her husband said.
Hoff said she's grateful for her years in the swimming wilderness. She learned she was stubborn in a good way, willing to persist long after others had given up on her. She believes that sense of her own toughness will help no matter what she does going forward.
"I still care what people think of me," she said. "But I care a lot less."
You probably won't find Hoff in front of a television watching the 2016 Olympics. Too painful.
You probably won't find her in a pool either, maybe not until she's a mother, introducing her kids to the sport she loved. The old competitive instincts would kick in, and that wouldn't be healthy.
Instead, she'll simply learn to live with a career that, while impressive, refused to follow a straight line.
"No, it's like a zigzag to the extreme," she said, laughing. "It's like those lines you see on the machines that measure earthquakes."