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SWIMMING

Katie Hoff is a long way from Beijing now

The Olympian who won three medals last summer can do no better than sixth in 400 freestyle at U.S. nationals. A recent respiratory illness is at least partly to blame.

July 08, 2009|Kevin Van Valkenburg

INDIANAPOLIS — For several days leading up to the U.S. nationals, Katie Hoff swore she felt better. Sure, a respiratory illness earlier this month had wiped her out, forcing her to nearly drop out of a meet in Santa Clara, and she was coughing nonstop. But with rest, she said she felt like herself again. She was ready to prove she was still one of the world's elite swimmers.

Midway through the women's 400-meter freestyle Tuesday night, it was clear that something wasn't right. The 20-year-old swimmer didn't look anything like the woman who won an Olympic silver medal and two bronze 11 months ago in Beijing.

She was struggling to hold onto fourth place, and looked tired and slow. It didn't get any better over the final 200 meters. The powerful closing speed Hoff has used to win countless races never materialized. When she touched the wall in 4 minutes 12.34 seconds, the result seemed almost surreal.

Sixth place. Her time in the finals was actually two seconds slower than her qualifying time in the morning. Certainly the majority of it was physical. Her coach, Bob Bowman, said as much after the race.

"Katie has been struggling," Bowman said. "Physically she's still not right. . . . She only stopped coughing about 10 days ago. She was so sick in Santa Clara, we contemplated not swimming here."

But he also conceded that some of it might be mental too.

Hoff has been trying to change her stroke a bit; she's been training differently since she started working with Bowman. It's clear she's not particularly confident right now. As she fell behind, her form got progressively worse, Bowman said. And everything began to snowball for her inside the Indiana University Natatorium.

"I think psychologically and physically, she's just not there," Bowman said. "It happens to everybody. Katie has never had a meet like this. I think she'll learn from it and move on. She'll fight back."

This one clearly stung Hoff a bit, though. She declined to speak with the media after her swim. When asked how she was dealing with the disappointment, Bowman said, "not too well right now."

Eleven months ago in Beijing, Britain's Rebecca Adlington out-touched Hoff at the wall in this event by seven hundredths of a second. But right now, Hoff is the sixth-fastest American, trailing Alison Schmitt, Close Sutton, Caroline Burckle, Alyssa Anderson and Amber McDermott. Is that close finish in the Olympic final still lingering?

"That definitely plays into it," Bowman said. "You can't have something like that and think that it doesn't affect you."

Right now, Hoff is in danger of not even making the U.S team for the world championships, to be held later this month in Rome. She's likely to drop out of the 800 freestyle, which means that her remaining chance will be in the 200 free.

She decided she didn't want to swim either individual medley event this year, even though she won both at the world championships in 2005 and 2007.

"Part of it is that it doesn't matter how hard you train, or how many ridiculously horrible IM sets you do, the race does not get any easier," Hoff said before this meet, when asked about her decision to back away from the individual medley events for a while. "It might get a little bit easier, but it's still going to hurt more than any event out there. I get the most nervous for it, I have the most pain, and it's just not a pleasant event."

Hoff's puzzling performance almost overshadowed a great night by Elizabeth Pelton, who is just 15 years old and conjured up some memories of Hoff at that age by finishing second in the women's 200 individual medley behind Julia Smit, meaning she'll be headed to Rome.

Pelton jumped out to a big lead and was actually under world-record pace for much of the race, and she was able to hold on despite a mediocre breaststroke to touch in 2 minutes 11.03 seconds.

"When someone told me I was under world-record pace, I was like, 'Wow,' " Pelton said. "Personally, I could go home right now and be happy. That's the most nervous I've been."

Her coach, Paul Yetter, who coached Hoff all through her teenage years, said he wasn't surprised by Pelton's performance. Pelton has been breaking age-group records for several years, and is now emerging as one of the fastest in the world at any age.

"She has so much speed, and she's really a tough and determined swimmer," Yetter said. "As soon as she touched the wall and we all looked at the clock, we were all so excited and pumped up. Liz is such a hard worker, and she's fun. We have a ton of fun feeding off her energy."

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kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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