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Unsinkable

The tumultuous rise and fall (and rise and fall, and rise) of U.S. swimmer Katie Hoff, a.k.a. the "Phemale Phelps"

Author CRISTINA ROUVALIS

EIGHT YEARS AGO, Katie Hoff was swimming’s girl wonder. During the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Long Beach, Calif.—and one month after turning 15—she posted the fastest time in the world for the 400-meter individual medley that year. The performance earned her the distinction of being the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic Team, and reporters and photographers swarmed her as she left to take on the world in Athens. But at the 2004 Olympic Games, Hoff melted under the bright international spotlight. She was so overcome by nerves that she cramped up midway through her first race, fading to 17th place and getting sick on the deck afterward.

Her coach Paul Yetter knew that most young swimmers wouldn’t recover from such a public humiliation, but he also knew that Hoff was not most young swimmers. So before she boarded the flight home to Baltimore, he gave her a pep talk in the Olympic pool area: “We are going to go forward. I think you can be the best female swimmer on the planet.”

His hunch soon proved true. Hoff won both the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys at the 2005 and 2007 World Swimming Championships, and in December 2007 she smashed four American records within a 29-hour period (“Nobody does that,” Yetter says). She also broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley twice. By the time she shipped out for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, she had been dubbed the “Phemale Phelps,” a reference to her North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Michael Phelps.

Hoff won a silver and two bronze medals in Beijing, but it wasn’t enough to make her Superwoman to Phelps’ Superman. The five-event schedule drained her. And then there was the psychological sting of missing gold by a mere .07 of a second in the 400-meter freestyle. Some say she’d have won if she’d touched the finish pad with her fingertips instead of her palm.

Looking for a fresh start, Hoff switched to Bob Bowman, Phelps’ famously tough coach; unfortunately, Hoff says today, “it wasn’t a good match.” Things only got worse as she came down with respiratory problems. Her confidence seeped away. In 2009 she failed to even qualify for the World Swimming Championships, a devastating blow. Swimming ceased to give her any joy. “I just didn’t want to be in the pool,” she says. “They were the dark days of despair.”

She wanted to quit, and she might have, had it not been for a key piece of advice. Her mother, Jeanne, didn’t think she should leave the sport on such a low note. “Don’t let this beat you,” she told Katie.

JEANNE RUARK HOFF knows all about the ups and downs of sports. An elite athlete herself, she played basketball at Stanford University from 1978 to 1983, setting a school record with a career average of 17.6 points per game. But while supportive of her daughter’s swimming, she never pushed her. “She wasn’t a swim mom,” as Katie Hoff puts it.

Indeed, all the drive to compete and win came from within Katie, whom Jeanne decided to home-school after watching her super-active daughter squirm through kindergarten classes. The arrangement came in handy when Hoff started winning state titles by age 10—the same year she announced she wanted to go to the Olympic Games. In 2003, when Hoff was 14, her family moved from Virginia to Towson, Md., so she could train with Yetter at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

Yetter had never seen an athlete with so much grit. She was a coach’s dream, studying the workouts and asking how fast she should swim each split. Hoff swam all four strokes flawlessly—freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke—making her an ideal candidate for the individual medley. “She doesn’t have a weakness,” Yetter says.

Back then, to call Hoff type-A would have been an understatement. “At 14, Katie would press her goggles into her face 100 times to make sure they didn’t leak,” Yetter says. “She did it 98 times more than every other kid.” If she did 14 pull-ups instead of the required 15, she would feel guilty, her mother says. Even her arrival time for 7 a.m. practices turned into a competition. Yetter liked to get to the pool at 6:45 a.m., before his swimmers. Then Hoff started coming in at 6:40, pushing the coach’s arrival back to 6:35. When she started showing up at 6:30, Yetter realized where this was going. “OK, you win,” he thought. And win she did. That is, until she didn’t.

AFTER HER 2009 COLLAPSE, Hoff did some soul-searching and decided to continue swimming—not just to compete, but also to change her city, her coach and her attitude. In short, everything. She moved to California to train with a group of elite female swimmers at Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team. Outside the pool she made friends at Chapman University, where she studied public relations. Best of all, she loosened up. She learned to laugh, even as she pushed herself to shave fractions of a second off her times. “I am definitely not as OCD as I used to be,” she says. “I calmed down as I got older.”

The changes paid off in late 2010, when Hoff took first place in the 400-meter freestyle at the World Swimming Championships in Dubai. Yet she still wasn’t where she needed to be in order to make one last push for a third Olympic Games. So she moved to Florida at the beginning of this year to train again with Coach Yetter.

Today the 22-year-old Hoff has the same fire as the 14-year-old version of herself, but is more fun-loving, a trait Yetter believes will help her better handle the excruciating pressure of the Olympic Games. Her mother agrees: “She is trying to enjoy the process more. She has had real highs and incredible lows, but hopefully she’s now more in the middle.”

And as she prepares for the U.S. Olympic Team swim trials in Omaha next month, Hoff is beginning to show her old winning form. “To be honest, I’m not there yet,” she says, taking a breather between training sessions in Naples this January. “But I think I’m on the verge of a breakthrough.”

Hemispheres contributor CRISTINA ROUVALIS, a writer based in Pittsburgh, sinks like a stone.

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