In the fast lane

Katie Hoff has seen the future.

Between her smashing victories at the world swimming championships 4 1/2 months ago and her triumphs at nationals last week, Hoff toured Beijing to see what next year will bring.


She did the tourist things but also inspected the outside of the swimming venue and viewed a model of the unfinished Olympic pool. With the Summer Olympics set to begin one year from today, Hoff said she liked what she saw.

"I think it gave me a great advantage to be able to know what to expect and what it's going to be like," Hoff said of her spring visit. "I'm glad I was able to prepare like that."


What a difference from the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Hoff was, at 15, the youngest American competitor. She unsuccessfully fought nerves and cultural disorientation to finish fifth in her heat in the 400-meter individual medley and seventh in the 200-meter IM.

"I was just so naive and so young," she said. "It was my first international meet. I wasn't as confident and as at home swimming there. Now I feel real confident. I've experienced a couple of world championships and I've experienced some international meets and I feel ready to go."

Just try to stop her.

Hoff, 18, has been vacuuming up medals the way vacationers collect souvenirs. The Towson swimmer won three national titles last week: the 200-meter IM, the 200-meter backstroke and 200-meter freestyle. At worlds, she set the world record at the 400-meter IM on the way to the gold and stood atop the podium in the 200-meter IM and as the anchor in the 800-meter freestyle relay.

She has a new car - a BMW bought with her winnings - and this fall she hopes to take the SATs to pave the way for college and life after the Olympics.

But first, there's the matter of a little down time in the Bahamas, where swimming will take a back seat to finishing the latest Harry Potter book.

After recharging, Hoff will begin the process of selecting the events that give her the best chance of winning Olympic gold.

"That's obviously a goal of mine every day. It's what gets me up and makes me want to swim and practice. I'm not going to lie. It's obviously on my mind," she said. "I'm just excited about going into my next season and try and drop my times. All about next year is going to trials and trying to make the team and then going on and trying to make America proud."


Hoff used nationals to try events such as the 800-meter freestyle, an event she says she's "leaning toward" even though it is scheduled on the same day as the 200-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic trials next June and July in Omaha, Neb., and the Olympics.

With her growing resume comes public appearances. The China trip was part of the "Visa Friendship Lanes Tour" for the Special Olympics with teammates Michael Phelps of Rodgers Forge, Ryan Lochte and Megan Jendrick. Stops included the Great Wall ("really cool"), working with Special Olympics athletes ("an inspiration") and dealing with "Michael's rule" - that would be Phelps - which meant trying all kinds of food, even jellyfish, which she called "weird and crunchy."

"The food is interesting. I think they'll have some American food there for the Games," she said, pausing. "They'd better."

On Monday, she and Summer Sanders, a two-time gold medalist at the 1992 Summer Games, helped publicize a fundraising program to improve the pool at the National Capital YMCA in downtown Washington.

Sanders likened the one-year-out date to being a 10-year-old and counting down the days to Christmas.

"Now it's real and now you see the light," she said. "You know when you're going to start tapering and you're going to start really getting focused. It becomes even more fun."


She marveled at Hoff's maturity and ability to focus, comments that made Hoff smile.

"Four years ago ... I wasn't even thinking of the Olympics because I wasn't in a position where I was ranked as highly as I am now," Hoff said. "Last time, three months before it was, like, 'Oh, maybe I can make the team,' but now I'm more prepared and more experienced and more excited about next summer."

As the pressure mounts, Hoff says she'll "take it in stride and put the blinders on and put my goals and what I want to do first and not worry about anything going on around me."

And when she gets to Beijing next year?

"I'll be swimming," she says, "which is exactly what I want."