Katie Hoff

Katie Hoff is smiling, but that isn't always the case when working with Bob Bowman. (Baltimore Sun photo by Elizabeth Malby / February 11, 2009)

The day that Katie Hoff realized the Second Act of her swimming life had truly begun, she was struggling to finish a workout at Meadowbrook Athletic Club. Her muscles were shaking, pleading with her brain to give the order to quit. She was so emotionally strung out, she fell to the ground and started to bawl.

Her new coach, Bob Bowman, bellowed at her from across the pool deck. Katie! Don't you dare give up, he barked. Get up! Keep going!

Hoff knew on some level that this is what it would be like to work with Bowman, who helped Michael Phelps win 14 gold medals during the past two Olympics. It was the main reason she reached out to him after the Olympics and after he returned from Michigan to be the CEO of North Baltimore Aquatic Club. She needed a change. But understanding what she was getting herself into, and experiencing it, turned out to be two very different things.

She finished the workout: Ten successive 100-meter freestyle sprints, followed by 10 successive 100-meter butterfly sprints, all of them to be swum as fast as possible.

It nearly broke her, but this is why she didn't follow through on her initial impulse to abandon competitive swimming: Afterward, Bowman asked Hoff, a 19-year-old Towson swimmer with two Olympics on her resume, a simple question.

Don't you feel prepared for anything right now?

"I was literally falling over and bawling and shaking and he was screaming at me," Hoff said. "Afterward he was like, 'How could you not be so confident going into the biggest meets after doing such hard stuff?' It kills you, but in the end, you're going to have that extra confidence. You're going to say, 'Look what I've done.' "

She laughs as she tells this story. You get the sense she's not quite sure what to make of it. It feels, almost, as if she's talking about another person. And, in some respects, she is.

Hoff is living on her own now, having moved out of her parents' house and into a condominium she purchased and had redecorated. She's taking classes at Loyola College and helped coach the Greyhounds swim team earlier this year as much as her schedule permitted. She has had a chance to unwind, reflect, make new friends and explore other interests. (She's interested, at least right now, in writing.)

And she's still swimming, still poised to tackle another Olympics four years from now, and most likely another after that. She still longs to snag that elusive gold medal. But working with Bowman has helped her understand that right now, results and times simply do not matter. She'll swim next week at the Charlotte UltraSwim, where Phelps will make his return to competitive swimming.

Hoff has competed in a handful of meets this spring, winning a few of her signature events (like the 400 meter freestyle at the Missouri Grand Prix in February, and 200 meter freestyle at the Austin Grand Prix in early March) while pushing herself in other events that's she's less familiar with (like the 100 meter freestyle in Austin, where she finished third.)

What matters the most, though, is that Hoff and Bowman working together seems to be, for lack of a better word, working. Because there was a time, briefly after the Olympics, when training made her so miserable, she couldn't help but question her desire to keep going.

"I think there are definitely times when you can't have so much of your life not be any fun," Hoff said. "For me that's why I just wasn't happy. I worked things out and obviously I'm happy now, but life's too short to go through something when you're not happy."

From 2004 to 2008, Hoff trained relentlessly with an eye on the Beijing Olympics. Her talent was obvious to anyone who followed swimming. She won multiple gold medals at the FINA world championships in 2005 and 2007, and because she and Phelps shared a similar back story - both made their first Olympic team at 15, both were products of NBAC - Hoff got sucked right into the hype that surrounded Phelps' quest to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics.

When Hoff won five individual events at the U.S. Olympic trials two months before the Olympics, the same number as Phelps, all that hype began to lose touch with reality.

"I remember I saw an article that said, 'Will she get to the record first?' " Hoff said, referring to the suggestion that she had become the female version of Phelps. "My mouth just opened. At that point I had zero world records. I wasn't ranked first in anything in the world. I guess I had to half take it as a compliment: 'OK, you guys obviously think that I'm that good. Thanks, but I'm not.' Hopefully, people can see some perspective now and realize I'm just trying to do my best out there."

When the Games didn't go quite the way she had hoped - she won a silver medal and two bronze - she felt the overwhelming need to disappear. Just get away from chlorine for a few months. She spent six weeks lying low, including 10 days in Costa Rica. She relaxed on the beach, rode a zip line and went on a crocodile safari. It was the longest she had stayed away from a swimming pool in nearly a decade.

When she decided to start training again, she still wasn't sure what she wanted to accomplish. She and her coach, Paul Yetter, decided it was time to part ways, ending a partnership that spanned her teenage years. In addition to living on her own and attending college classes, she would be juggling Bowman's intense workouts for the first time. Could she handle it?

She decided to seek the counsel of Phelps, someone who knew Bowman better than anyone else. After the Olympics, she and Phelps attended an event in New York City, and on the limo ride home, Hoff peppered him with questions for close to three hours.

"I think if you don't know him, I think it's hard," Phelps said he tried to explain to her. "I've had a lot of conversations with a lot of different swimmers, not only people [at Meadowbrook], but people in school [at Michigan]. Bob is a very intense person. He loves what he does, and he cares about his swimmers. The only thing he wants to do is see people succeed. Sometimes he goes about it in different ways."

Hoff understands why she and Bowman might seem, to some, like an unusual pairing. How would she respond when he screamed like a drill sergeant on the first day of basic training? Over the years, Phelps and Bowman came to understand they could growl at each other in times of stress and leave those squabbles at the pool, but yelling back and defying authority is hardly Hoff's style. Criticism either bounced off Phelps or motivated him. Hoff tended to absorb it.

For Bowman, though, it wasn't even a concern.

"She is so much more self-confident and independent," Bowman said, when asked recently about his impressions of Hoff. "I think this year has been such a big transition year for her in so many ways. It's really refreshing to see her doing it so successfully. She's moved out on her own, obviously she changed coaches, there have been a lot of new things thrown at her. She's just relishing that challenge, which I think is what college life is about."

The subject of her self-confidence has become a beaten, dead horse in the Hoff literary canon. At every big meet she has had to answer questions about her nerves, about the time she vomited on the pool deck in the 2004 Olympics, or about how she deals with such overwhelming pressure. And while she has learned to handle those inquiries with grace, until she wins a gold medal, she knows they're unlikely to disappear. That's why, even though she was initially afraid of burnout, she dived back into training.

Better than anyone else, Hoff knows how a swimmer's legacy can be shaped by fractions of a second. In the 400-meter freestyle Olympic final, she led by nearly a body length with 100 meters to go. But at the wall, Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington out-touched her by seven hundredths of a second. Had she held on, she knows it's likely her Olympic experience would have been viewed differently.

"A lot of my struggle was that [race]," Hoff said. "That is something that obviously still bothers me a little bit. But it bothers me a lot to be like, 'Could I have touched differently?' There is nothing more that I could have done. At this point it's like, OK, time to move on and keep going."


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