Hoff bronzed again

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - Katie Hoff won her third medal of the 2008 Olympics, swimming the anchor for the United States on the 800-meter freestyle relay and helping the Americans to a third-place finish today behind Australia and China.

The Americans - who came into the event owning the world record - were in fourth place for much of the race after swims by Allison Schmitt and Natalie Coughlin, but Caroline Burckle and Hoff helped the U.S. rally past Italy to win bronze in a time of 7 minutes, 46.33 seconds.

"It's tough, but we just got our American record by four seconds, so we can't really complain about it," said Hoff, of Towson. "The [other] teams just had a little more. ... I did my best and ran out of room at the end. It's all I can do."

Australia won gold and set a world record (7:44.31), while China won silver (7:45.93). It was the first time the United States has not won gold in the 800 freestyle relay since it became an Olympic event in 1996.

This week, Hoff won a silver (400 freestyle), a bronze (400 individual medley) and finished fourth twice (200 freestyle and 200 individual medley). Coughlin, who has a gold, a silver and two bronze medals, is still the only American woman to win more medals this week than Hoff.

Michael Phelps didn't have a final for the first time this week but secured himself a spot in the final of the 200 individual medley with the second-fastest time (1:57.70) behind Ryan Lochte (1:57.69). He said he planned to spend the rest of the day laying low, playing cards or sleeping.

"That's the biggest thing over the next two days," Phelps said. "Trying to get as much rest and recovery in my system as possible. Tomorrow, the 200 IM is going to be a hard race, and so is the 100 fly against [Ian] Crocker. Crock's been waiting around for this event, so you know he's going to be ready to do something good."

Phelps' quest for eight gold medals has been such a huge story in the buildup to these Olympics, and with his performances here, his excellence has, in many ways, made it difficult keep expectations for Hoff in check.

"Can Hoff be the female version of Phelps?" was an easy story line for the media to focus on, considering they both grew up in Baltimore County and trained with North Baltimore Aquatic Club. In retrospect, it might have been somewhat unrealistic.

Criticism that Hoff's program here might have been a bit too ambitious has been building to a slow boil ever since Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington out-touched her at the wall to win the gold medal in the 400 freestyle. Hoff, though, is an emotional swimmer, still learning how to marshal her nervous energy into her performances.

She would argue - and has throughout the year - that swimming multiple races helps her more than it hinders her. With a lot of events to swim, she doesn't put too much pressure on herself, something she did in 2004 in Athens, when she had just one race.

"Right now, there is nobody that wants to win a gold medal at this meet more than Katie Hoff," said Mark Schubert, the director of USA Swimming. "That's the good thing."

Hoff has one more shot at winning gold, Saturday morning in the 800 freestyle.

"It definitely gives me some motivation," Hoff said about missing out on gold thus far.

Hoff's main concern this week isn't that she has swum poorly, it's that everyone else in the world is dropping big chunks of time. She set an American record in the 200 freestyle, but Federica Pellegrini of Italy set a world record and Hoff came in fourth. An hour later, she finished fourth in the 200 individual medley when Australia's Stephanie Rice also set a world record.

That hasn't stopped some of Hoff's competitors from offering mild criticism of her decision to enter five individual races.

"The competition is tough in every race. For me, sometimes it's not a good idea [to swim so many events]," said Slovenia's Sara Isakovic, who won silver in the 200 freestyle and was also faster than the previous world record. "It's really important to focus on your main event. Not just try to win maybe five gold medals."

Yetter was quick to disagree.

"I remember when Matt Biondi was supposed to win seven golds and he got a bronze in his first race and everyone asked, 'Are you disappointed?' " Yetter said. "[Biondi] said, 'No, I just want to win a gold medal.' You kind of have to look at it like that."

Medals other than gold, however, are often viewed differently depending on the swimmer. American Jason Lezak, who was the hero of the 400 freestyle relay and one of the main reasons Phelps is still in the chase for eight gold medals, won the first individual medal of his career, finishing in a tie for third in the 100 freestyle. Four years ago, Lezak didn't even make the final.

"Definitely a huge mistake I made four years ago by taking [preliminaries] too lightly. It's been eating at me for a long time," Lezak said. "To go out there and accomplish that medal, I'm really excited," Lezak said. "Obviously, it doesn't top the relay from the other night, but it's something that's really pushed me to swim for four years."

kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.com

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