- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

BEIJING | Barely 15 years old and the youngest United States athlete at the Athens Olympics, Katie Hoff admits she was in over her head (“a little bit”) and physically overmatched by her competition (“I was the skinniest little thing ever”) when she failed to medal in her two races.

The trip was low-lighted when she hyperventilated and vomited on the deck following her 400 individual medley race.

Four years later, Hoff hopes for nothing but highlights this time around.

“Everything about this time feels different,” she said. “I don’t feel scared and like the whole world is swirling around me. I feel in control and ready to go.”

Like six-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, her former teammate at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Hoff is entered in five individual events - the 200 and 400 IM and the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles. She starts Saturday at 8:21 a.m. EDT with a heat race in the 400 individual medley, an event she set the world record in earlier this summer (4:31.12).

A three-time gold medalist at last year’s world championships, Hoff could win both IM golds and is the 400 free favorite and a medal contender in the 800 free.

“She’s like a Michael Phelps - she can swim anything,” former Olympian Kaitlin Sandeno said. “Just extremely talented. She works so hard, and she really can do anything she wants.”

For Hoff, anything usually means everything during her swimming career. Bored by the monotony of practicing one stroke, the Towson, Md., resident has trained better when she practices each of the sport’s four strokes.

Although the IMs gave her the first Olympic trip and remains her two strongest events, Hoff swims the three freestyle events to gain versatility and keep from getting anxious for just one or two races.

“It keeps it interesting,” she said. “To swim one event or one stroke, it could get monotonous and boring, especially in practice. It takes the pressure off because if my breaststroke isn’t going well one day, I always have my freestyle to go to. It keeps my mind settled.”

Hoff credits that attitude to reclaiming the 400 IM world record from Australia’s Stephanie Rice. Hoff won the trials race in 4:31.12. A few years ago, Hoff said, she would have seen her record fall and might have pressed, going too fast, too early and possibly not qualifying for the event.

“I wasn’t focused on breaking the record at trials,” she said. “I was focused on having a good swim.”

Rice will make her Olympic debut and is Hoff’s top challenger in the IM races.

“I actually think it’s really good for me,” Rice said of swimming in the same events as Hoff. “We get the best out of ourselves. Katie is an amazing athlete. She took the 400 record back and I have the 200 record so we’re on a pretty even playing field.”

The 20-year-old Rice has swam in several international competitions before the Olympics. Not so for Hoff in 2004.

Hoff spent the first part of her life in Williamsburg before her family moved to the Baltimore area so she could work with coach Paul Yetter. In 2003, she finished second in the 200 and 400 IM at the U.S. Open.

At the 2004 Trials, she surprised the field by winning both individual medleys.

So unexpected was Hoff’s trip to Greece her parents didn’t attend - they hadn’t planned on Katie’s victories.

“It was all kind of a whirlwind - making the team, winning both events, my family not going,” Hoff said. “This time, I had four years of preparing for the Olympic Games. The mentality wasn’t just trials, but trials and beyond.”

Since Athens, Hoff won two individual golds at the 2005 world championships and eight national titles.

“Technically, I’m not sure I’ve seen a swimmer that age that good in the little things,” U.S. coach Jack Bauerle said.

Hoff has reshaped her body during the last four years to become a powerhouse. But also her emotions.

“I’m confident it definitely won’t happen again,” Hoff said of the Athens episode. “I’ve learned over the last four years how to deal with those pressures.”

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