BEIJING -- She sat in the ready room and could not take a breath to relax herself. The 400-meter individual medley scared the living daylights out of her, and yet here was Katie Hoff, baby of the U.S. team, about to begin her Olympic career by swimming the race at the 2004 Athens Games.
It had all happened so fast. She was in the Olympics with the fastest time of the year in the 400 IM when five weeks earlier, Hoff, barely 15, was hoping only to get a place on the team. All the attention that followed her victories in the 200 and 400 IMs at the trials, all the focus on the sport's newest ingenue, drained her emotional energy. She felt overwhelmed.
It had happened so fast that her coach, Paul Yetter, had no accreditation to be with Hoff on the Olympic pool deck, and, at that stage of her career, she relied on Yetter to boost her confidence. Now she had no coach and no confidence, enough to make anyone hold her breath figuratively. Hoff did it literally, though, getting more tightly wound each second before her preliminary heat.
Hoff dived into the pool and was so nervous she came unstrung. She cramped up and hurt in a way she never experienced while swimming. It made her so nauseated that after the race she threw up. She was 17th-fastest in the prelims, and out of the final.
And then the story took a painful turn.
Her hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, noted that Hoff was believed to be the only U.S. swimmer in Athens without a parent present. The Sun had reported a week before the Olympics that John and Jeanne Hoff were not coming for reasons that included the independence they long had fostered in Katie, but now it seemed different. Now it seemed they had forsaken the baby in her moment of distress.
"It was so exaggerated, so blown out of proportion," Katie said. "I came on so quickly, there was no time for any of us to prepare for it, to spend the money for the trip to Athens. I had my teammates, and I talked to my parents on the phone every day, but the story sounded like I was all alone, and it almost turned people against my parents, when they had done nothing wrong."
The Hoffs were wounded by the perception they were uncaring. Since Katie was 9, they often stayed home while she went to meets with her team.
"It was very hurtful to us," Jeanne Hoff said. "It made it seem like we had abandoned our child. A lot of people misunderstood."
It will be different this time. Hoff's parents and brother Christian, 15, have had plenty of time to prepare for a trip to Beijing, because Katie recovered from what she called her "huge disaster" in Athens to become the leading female swimmer on the U.S. team, a stature made clear when she won five events at last month's Olympic trials.
"There weren't a lot of positives about the last Olympics for Katie, except it being part of a maturing process for her," Jeanne Hoff said. "It was very traumatic."
The trauma ended for good a year after Athens. At the 2005 world championships in Montreal, where the 200 IM was her opening event, Hoff took the first of the four individual world titles she has won.
The "2005 worlds was crucial," Hoff said. "My confidence was pretty down after the Olympics, and I wanted to prove to myself and the world I wasn't a one-hit wonder. It was a turning point in my career."
Yetter was not surprised.
"By the 2004 Olympics, I had coached her about 740 days, and one day out of those 740, she wasn't herself," Yetter said of Hoff's Olympic debut. "I had no doubt she was going to do real well in her next big meet. Katie is a stud."
Calling a young woman a "stud" would sound odd, were the coach saying it anywhere else but the Baltimore pool where Michael Phelps had trained to win six golds and two bronzes at Athens. Yetter, 32, merely is comparing Hoff to the pedigree of excellence in multi-event swimming that Phelps bred at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club before moving.
"Michael cleared the way for swimmers to do multiple events at major international meets," Hoff said. "Five or six years ago, it would have seemed ridiculous to try it."
The temptation is to see Hoff as the female version of Phelps, who is four years older and cannot resist teasing her the way a brother does a little sister. Phelps won no medal in his first Olympics and headed into his second, the one that made him a star, at 19; Hoff won no medal in her first Olympics and heads to her second, the one expected to make her a star, at 19.
But even a cursory analysis of their records makes it clear why Hoff, 2008 model, is not Phelps, 2004 model.
Phelps went to Athens as the utterly dominant world-record holder in three events, both individual medleys and the 200-meter butterfly and a close second in a fourth, the 100 butterfly. He won those four and added a bronze medal in a fifth, the 200 freestyle, where that was the most anyone expected of him.