BEIJING - Katie Hoff looked exhausted when she pulled herself out of the pool yesterday inside the Water Cube. She was the last competitor in her 800-meter freestyle heat to climb onto the pool deck, and her expression was one of weary disappointment.
Hoff's Olympics came to an end much sooner than expected, and she acknowledged later that she tried to do too much - five individual events and a relay in her second Olympic Games - and that she wouldn't try to do it again.
The 19-year-old Towson swimmer failed to qualify for the finals of the 800-meter freestyle, a race in which she was considered a gold-medal contender. But she did win her first Olympic medal, taking a silver in the 400 free, where she was out-touched at the wall, and two bronze medals, in the 400 IM and 800 free relay.
"I feel like the schedule was definitely a lot tougher than I thought it would be doing it twice," Hoff said this morning. "I handled it at trials, but it was the Olympic games, very challenging.
"I'm just proud of winning three medals. Would have hoped for it to go a little bit better, but you really can't stick your nose up at three Olympic medals."
Her 800 free finishing time of 8 minutes, 27.78 seconds was seven seconds slower than her qualifying time at the Olympics trials in Omaha, Neb., and nearly nine seconds behind the top qualifier for tomorrow's final. She posted the 11th-fastest time in the preliminaries; only the top eight swimmers advanced to tomorrow's final.
After her race, a clearly disappointed Hoff floated past reporters without making eye contact, struggling to catch her breath and declining to answer questions. Her personal coach, Paul Yetter, also left the Water Cube without speaking to reporters.
It was a disappointing conclusion to an up-and-down week for Hoff. On one hand, she won the three medals, a total surpassed only by veteran Natalie Coughlin among American women. In the 800 free relay final yesterday morning, she swam the fastest relay split in American history (1:54.71), helping the United States win bronze.
But she looked gassed in the individual 800 free, laboring hard the final 50 meters. Her final split - 34.39 seconds - was the slowest closing leg posted by any of the top 33 competitors. That served only as fuel to those questioning whether Yetter and the rest of the USA Swimming coaching staff let her swim a program here that was simply too ambitious.
"Yeah, it was pretty painful. My body kind of shut down at the 500," Hoff said. "I did the best I could in the situation. I tried to put my hand on the wall, but it wasn't good enough."
Michael Phelps, a fellow North Baltimore Aquatic Club product, saw a different Hoff in the event.
"She didn't look like herself during the race," Phelps said. "I'm not sure why or how. But she trained really well leading up to it. I guess this will be a big learning experience for her. She's someone who, when she has something like this, you can guarantee she's going to be better next time."
Hoff made the team in five individual events and was chosen to swim on the 800 free relay. The only swimmer, man or woman, swimming more than Hoff this week is Phelps. From any country.
"She did a heck of a job here for us," U.S. women's head coach Jack Bauerle said. "The question is always going to be whether she bit off more than she could chew. But the bottom line is she was the best person in all the events we put her in. We wouldn't have done it any other way."
The similarities between Hoff and Phelps - both trained at NBAC, both made their first Olympic team at age 15 and both were world champions and world-record holders before they could legally drive - helped people to draw some easy, but perhaps unfair, comparisons. Countless newspapers, magazine features and television profiles asked whether she could be "The Female Phelps" in the buildup to the Games.
Hoff said she has an even greater appreciation for what Phelps has accomplished.
"Definitely. I keep saying that. The mental energy and emotional energy and physical energy that it takes to go out there and get up every time, even for a prelim, you have to put in some kind of effort, even Michael, it's just incredible," she said. "He's swimming even more than I swam. He's doing it in world-record time, gold medals. It definitely gives me a lot more respect, even more than I already had for him."
But Baurle said it's unfair to compare the two Baltimore-area swimmers. Hoff agrees.
"I think Michael is doing what he's doing and it's incredible, but it kind of makes the rest of us look like, if you don't win a gold medal, it's not. You know? I even got a best time in the 200 free, and I didn't medal. It's tough, but obviously Michael gets our sport out there, and that's great."
Zimbabwe's Kristy Coventry, who competes against Hoff in both individual medley events, said she could relate to Hoff's disappointment. She has won three silver medals here.
"My heart really goes out to Katie. She's an awesome girl," Coventry said. "I think she's probably feeling what I'm feeling. You know how much hard work you put into this, and the Olympics are it. It's like the Wimbledon or the PGA of our sport. She's human. We all make mistakes, and we learn from them. She's so young and such a great ambassador for her country. She's going to go on to great things, and looking back, it's going to be a great learning experience for her."
The expectations surrounding Hoff weren't just a media creation, however. Her times at the U.S. Olympic trials suggested she was capable of a lot at these Games. Her time last month in the 400-meter freestyle (4:02.32) would have won her the gold medal in that event. Her time in the 200-meter individual medley (2:08.71) would have earned her a bronze.
Hoff said she has learned from the experience but is proud of her three medals. She plans to take a month off when she returns to Towson.
"I think the level of competition has risen a lot higher since they games [started]," Hoff said. "I'll just go back to the drawing board and try and work on my weaknesses and try to get better.
"I just have to always put in perspective as far as me personally and think, OK, silver medal, two bronze. I'm moving up in the world. It's better than last time, and I'm not close to being done."