Sunday, August 5, 2007

Hoff Expands Her Water Wings

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007; E03

INDIANAPOLIS, Aug. 3 -- Katie Hoff refuses to talk about her specific plans for the 2008 Olympics, because that would be too presumptuous, she said. First, she must improve during another year of training; then she has to qualify for the team; then -- maybe-- Hoff will anticipate the Summer Games, once she's firmly on a plane to Beijing.

The 18-year-old from Towson, Md., still outlines her goals with the same touch-and-go fragility that she relied on as the youngest U.S. Olympian in 2004, even though Hoff has since matured into the best female swimmer in the world. She set a meet record in the 200-meter freestyle Friday night, winning her fifth medal at the USA Swimming National Championships. One of her two best events, the 200 individual medley, takes place Saturday.

A year away from the Olympics, Hoff has positioned herself similarly to Michael Phelps: Her biggest dilemma is deciding which events to swim. She dominates the individual medleys and at one point or another, she has ranked top three in the world in the 200 and 400 freestyles.

Earlier this week, she proved herself world class in the 800 freestyle and 200 backstroke. Conceivably, with relays, she could qualify to swim eight events at the Olympics -- and she's still experimenting with the breaststroke.

"I never think about the possibility of having Katie do too much," said Paul Yetter, Hoff's coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "She has proved that she can swim a ton of events on pretty much any level, so why just stick with one thing? We're working to get fast in as many things as she can get fast in. That's our priority. Then, when it's time, we'll figure out what we like best."

In the 200 freestyle Friday, Hoff finished in 1 minute 57.57 seconds and destroyed a formidable field that included Kate Ziegler and Dana Vollmer. Once swimming's scrawny, kid-phenom, Hoff pulled through the water with hulking shoulders and biceps that she's developed by lifting weights three times each week. Her time was the fastest ever recorded in the United States, and she waved to the crowd as she pulled herself from the pool.

Hoff shies away from comparisons to Phelps, but the two swimmers have both used this meet to experiment and compete excessively. While inside the Indiana University Natatorium, Hoff has focused less on her core events than on things she might want to try. She swims twice each day to improve her ability to recover quickly between events. By winning the 200 backstroke and placing second in the 800 freestyle, Hoff added two potential races to her schedule at Olympic Trials next summer.

"Those two are on the same day, so I don't think I'll do both," Hoff said. "I'll probably pick the one that seems like the best chance and go for it. I think five or six events is probably enough for anyone out there. That's a lot to handle, even though it would be great to do everything."

National team coaches have said that Hoff could probably challenge the world's best swimmers in any event she decided to make a priority. She won gold at the 2007 World Championships in both individual medleys. To defend those events, Hoff continues to practice all four strokes.

"Who knows?" Yetter said. "Maybe in a year Katie's best event is going to be the 200 breaststroke. We're going to measure and play with everything, because that's what's most fun for her. If she only competed in the 400 medley, then that means she measures herself against a handful of people. She wants to measure herself against everybody. The last thing she wants to do is limit herself."

As usual Friday night, Hoff had a bit of a scheduling dilemma. She was supposed to be dancing to Beyonce at a recital in Towson with her hip-hop dancing class. After the World Championships in April, Hoff signed up for the class as a quasi-experiment in cross training. After long practices in the pool Tuesday evenings, she goes to the dance studio at 8 p.m. to hop and gyrate next to six or seven classmates. An hour later, she emerges soaked in sweat after a day filled with five or six hours of exercise.

Hoff has never liked the concept of limiting herself to one sport. Her mother, Jeanne, still holds the record for basketball scoring average at Stanford University, and Hoff hones her own athleticism by signing up to try a new sports every few years. Before she joined the dance class, Hoff had spent one day each week rock-climbing up an indoor wall.

"I think that helped me a lot with upper body strength, but it was really just for fun," she said. "I don't know if there was a huge difference, but I just really believe in cross training."

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