Baltimore's other champ

The Baltimore Sun

For now, Katie Hoff is content to be the other swimmer from Baltimore, the one not named Phelps, the one without the massive public relations machine and Olympic gold.

What she's less satisfied with is the image from four years ago in Athens of a skinny little girl of 15, the youngest member of the U.S. team, who faltered under the suffocating pressure and hype of the Summer Games.

Since 2004, Hoff has vacuumed up world records and titles and endorsement deals that have allowed her to drive a luxury car and buy her first home, but what Hoff really wants is to prove once and for all that she is the world's most versatile and dominant woman swimmer. After Hoff's back-to-back victories in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley events at the U.S. swim trials, five-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin paid her the ultimate compliment, calling her teammate "a stud."

Hoff believes this is her moment, although she hopes to swim in two more Olympics after Beijing. She is set to compete in five individual events and one relay in Beijing, beginning tomorrow.

"I feel at peace with it. I feel good about what my goals are. Because I have a lot of events, it takes the pressure off me being focused on one chance to win a gold medal," she explains. "Going into each race it's not, 'OK, if it doesn't happen here, it's not going to happen.' It allows me to be a lot more relaxed and take each race one at a time."

Mark Schubert, head coach of the U.S. team, says Hoff's versatility - she was the only U.S. woman to qualify for all 13 events at the trials - gives him options in selecting relay teams and will help Hoff stay fresh and on top for years.

"There are strokes and distances that Katie hasn't fully explored yet. ... I suspect she'll continue to evolve beyond Beijing. That's an exciting prospect for the U.S. team," Schubert says.

At 19, Hoff isn't skinny anymore, and on a pool deck awaiting the start of a race she exudes a quiet sense of ownership. Although she still seems a tad wary of interviewers she doesn't know and fans who rush up to her at a competition, Hoff is warming to the spotlight.

"Katie's grown up," says her coach, Paul Yetter, who has trained her at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club since 2003. "She's mentally tough and physically ready. There's no comparison to the swimmer of 2004."

Sitting across from her at a Towson coffee shop as she nibbles at a breakfast panini and sips an iced mocha, it's easy to fall into a conversation about music and home decorating. Hoff laughs easily and tells self-deprecating stories. She cheerfully admits that teammates get the better of her when it comes to talking smack.

She endures questions about Michael Phelps, even though they never trained together - the greatest myth of the Phelps-Hoff story - and got to know each other well only after he moved to Michigan to train with his coach, Bob Bowman.

"Yeah, everybody says that. It makes a nice story, but ..." Hoff shrugs her shoulders and moves on.

But when the conversation turns to swimming, Hoff drops her smile, measures her words and draws a bead on the question with the same intensity she reserves for the finish line.

"I'm prepared. I'm in a different place now. I know what to expect," she says, pausing to take a bite of her sandwich. "I'm hungry."

A 'light-bulb idea'

Nothing in the early years would have pegged Katie Hoff as a future champion.

Her mother, Jeanne, played basketball for Stanford University and is still among the top scorers in school history. Her father, John, is a sports fan.

Jeanne Hoff swam while she was pregnant, but her toddler didn't even like getting her head wet in the tub for a shampoo.

The family moved from Arizona to Virginia in May 1994. A coach at the local pool coaxed the 5-year-old into the water and got her paddling. She joined the Williamsburg Aquatics Club and then the Typhoon Aquatics Club, where she began winning races, mainly because she hated to lose.

Hoff still holds some Virginia swimming records from her preteen and early teenage years.

In spring 2003, Jeanne Hoff began talking to Murray Stephens, founder of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where Phelps trained.

Jeanne Hoff calls it a "light-bulb idea," not a calculated move. Her daughter was training with older teenage boys, and she wanted her in a group closer in age and goals. In June, the Hoffs traveled to Baltimore to scout housing and for some workouts.

By July, the Hoffs were packing their bags for Maryland.

Katie Hoff joined the NBAC but swam at a satellite training center in Harford County, not the pool in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Baltimore where Phelps worked out.

As part of a small group under Yetter, Hoff made tremendous strides, dropping about 10 seconds off her time in the 400 IM before the 2004 Olympic trials.

"If we saw some other people internationally doing that we would be accusing them of performance-enhancing drugs," says Stephens. "But it just happens if you have a person who's ready to respond to the training and has the skill development and who is able to get a fantastic amount of personal attention."

"There's no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't be where I am today without Paul and NBAC," Hoff says.


Things to know about Katie Hoff:

She has an Olympic rings tattoo and her e-mail address contains an "08." The tattoo, on her lower right back, came after her breakout performance at the 2005 world championships in Montreal. She got parental permission after making the 2004 Olympic team but held back until she was sure she could make the statement stick.

She is one of the few female swimmers to accessorize her competition wardrobe. Swimmers do everything to cut down on drag in the pool, but Hoff refuses to part with her earrings, which she says give her a feminine look, even in a swimming cap.

She loves to dance and was taking lessons at a Towson studio before she decided earlier to put all her energy into Olympic training. Hip-hop is her favorite, but as in swimming, she's game for any style.

She was home-schooled, with the exception of fourth grade, as was her younger brother, Christian. "It was really a good start for them to be themselves and get really grounded, and then when they went out in the world they pretty much knew who they were," Jeanne Hoff says. "We just kind of took it one year at a time, and we just kept going."

Katie Hoff always sets goals with rewards. In the practice pool, she bets teammates. At the Omaha Swimvitational, the last Grand Prix competition before the Olympic trials, it was a gooey piece of cheesecake laced with chocolate and caramel. After her triumphant trials, it was indulging in one of her biggest weaknesses - purses - with a black Louis Vuitton model.

When she returns from the Olympics, it will be to her own home. Just before the Olympic trials, she closed on a condo near the North Baltimore Aquatic Club but had no time for decorating. Her mother painted the bedroom purple, her favorite color, and her parents moved furniture from their home to hers.

Growing up fast

The 2004 Olympics was a physical, mental and emotional roller coaster. Hoff got a crash course on growing up.

"Oh yeah, on everything," she says, with an uncomfortable chuckle. "I flew under the radar right up until Olympic trials and then I was hit with it like a bomb. ... I wasn't prepared.

"All my emotional energy was used just to make the team. So when I made it, and I made it in two events, I think I overshot myself," she says. "I was just trying to eke my way onto the team in one event. I was almost ready to go home after trials. It was, like, 'Oh, what? I have to compete again?' I kind of had to regroup and try to get myself psyched up again."

After trials, the team flew off to Majorca, Spain, for a pre-Olympic training camp. Hoff was by herself, on her first international trip.

During long-distance phone calls, Jeanne Hoff could hear the growing desperation in her daughter's voice and fretted that Yetter, her daughter's coach and emotional rock, was not allowed at training camp.

"Oh God, it was horrible, when your kid is struggling halfway around the world and there's nothing you can do about it," she says. "I would liked to have been in Athens even though I know it wouldn't have mattered. We had to pass it up because we couldn't afford to have all three of us go and we weren't going to leave Christian behind. It wasn't an easy decision. But Katie needed Paul, and nothing we could have done would have mattered."

The swimmer remembers those days. "I lost a lot of confidence and started doubting everything," Hoff recalls. "It was tough for me. My coach wasn't there for a lot of it leading up to the Olympics, so that was tough. You just try to stay confident in yourself and remember all the things that got you there."

That was, she acknowledges, easier said than done.

In Athens, she failed to make the final in the 400 IM - despite having the year's fastest time in the event - and as she left the pool, she got sick from nerves. For 24 hours, she couldn't keep food down. But when Yetter was able to finagle his way to her side, Hoff regrouped and four days later, she finished seventh in the 200 IM finals.

Hoff came home, dusted herself off and went back to work, her eye on the 2005 world championships in Montreal. When the time came, she responded, setting a world record in the 400 IM and winning the 200 IM and a relay gold medal.

"I proved I wasn't a fluke," she says. "I proved I belonged."

At the 2007 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, Hoff put more distance between herself and her first Olympic experience, setting another world record in the 400 IM and picking up gold medals in the 200 IM and the 4 x 200-meter freestyle.

Despite all her daughter's success, says Jeanne Hoff, "Athens will always follow her because it's an amazing story to see someone totally collapse and then make it to the top."

Competing with herself

What makes Hoff so good, says Yetter, is her relentless energy and competitiveness in practice.

"She's competitive with her best self," Yetter says. "You have to compete not only against your competitors but if you want to go a better time you have to compete against your best self."

She swims two practice sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and one on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sunday, she swims for an hour, "and I don't really try hard," she says, looking sheepish.

Her dry land work consists of exercises to strengthen her core and arms and legs, and yoga and Pilates.

In Beijing, Hoff is expected to duel Australia's Stephanie Rice in the 200 and 400 IMs. Rice holds the world record in the 200 IM while Hoff and Rice have traded ownership of the world mark in the 400, with Hoff in control for now.

"My battle with Katie Hoff should be an epic," Rice wrote in her final blog entry until the Olympics ends.

The 200 IM battle will come on the same day as the final for the 200 freestyle, just like the Olympic trials.

"Katie Hoff is a stud for doing the 200 free-200 IM double," says Coughlin after finishing second to Hoff in the IM at trials. "I don't know any female swimmer who can do it so successfully."

Even Hoff is quick to say that the double was her personal highlight at the trials.

"I was proud to pull off the double," she says. "I wasn't sure I could do it. There was so much competition. I just wanted to finish the night in style."

Her final event - the 800 freestyle - comes on the final day of competition at the pool. Fellow American Kate Ziegler is favored, but twice this Grand Prix season Hoff has posted a better time.

"The main goal going in is a gold medal, but my thing is also versatility and if I can come away with medals in different strokes, different events I think that would also be a huge accomplishment and in my eyes would show that I could be up there with the best. Even if it's not a gold medal, of being able to say I'm a whatever-time Olympic medalist would also be cool to me too," she explains.

After Beijing, there's time for catching up on life, which, she says, "was pretty normal until I hit 15."

There's decorating her condo, taking a Loyola College journalism class as a precursor to a full-time load in January and tackling a big Katie Hoff fun list that has been gathering dust.

"My friends and I are always, like, 'After the Olympics, after the summer.' Do you know how many times we've said that? Just stuff, like going to New York to see a show or going to a cool restaurant ... stay up later," she says, warming to the question. "Whenever we eat somewhere I'm always looking at the menu and saying" - and she shifts into a soft, singsong voice - " 'I can't have that and I can't have that.' My friends say that after the Olympics, for once, 'We're going to go to a place and you're actually going TO EAT WHATEVER YOU WANT TO EAT.' "

That's versatility.


Born: June 3, 1989, in Palo Alto, Calif.

Family: Parents Jeanne, who works part time for a local insurance agency, and John, a salesman; younger brother Christian.

Did you know? Katie and Christian were home-schooled. Her mother, Jeanne (Ruark) Hoff, was the first Stanford women's basketball player to score 2,000 career points and is still on many of the school's all-time scoring lists. In 2006, Katie signed a 10-year deal with Speedo, which, at the time, was the longest contract for an athlete in the company's history. She plans to attend Loyola College part time in the fall.

What's at stake: Her first Olympic medal and establishing herself as one of the top female swimmers in the world. At 15 she made her first Olympic team but failed to medal in Athens in 2004. She has a chance to medal in five individual events and one relay in Beijing.

Three things to look for from Beijing:

* Hoff becoming the face of the U.S. women's swim team. Although Dara Torres, a 41-year-old mom, is a great story, as is five-time medalist Natalie Coughlin, Hoff could set world records and win more golds than any other female swimmer.

* Showdowns with Australian Stephanie Rice in the 200 and 400 IMs. Both have traded world records, and going against each other should mean lower times.

* Rooting for Phelps. They are both products of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, and Phelps has been known to stop a news conference just to watch Hoff swim. Expect the same cheering for Phelps from Hoff.

Event finals schedule

* Saturday, 400 IM

* Sunday, 400 freestyle

* Tuesday, 200 free and 200 IM

* Aug. 13, 4 x 200 free relay

* Aug. 15, 800 free

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