Hoff shows she has guts

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Hoff earns second medal of Games

From left, bronze medalist Joanne Jackson of Great Britain, silver medalist Katie Hoff and gold medalist Rebecca Adlington of Great Britain display their medals for the 400-meter freestyle. (Adam Pretty, Getty Images / August 11, 2008)

BEIJING

You can easily measure the distance between gold and silver. In heartbreaking fashion, for Katie Hoff today, it amounted to just .07 of a second.

What's harder to measure is the distance Hoff traveled just to get here, to go from lying on a pool deck to becoming a regular visitor to the Olympic medal podium. So everyone can fully appreciate what she's doing in China, let's go through this one last time. Feel free to cut this out. Carry it in your pocket, if you must. Hang it on your refrigerator, even. But this is going to be it:

Four years ago in Athens, Katie Hoff's nerves were jangling like wind chimes in a hurricane. She got sick. Her breakfast made an unexpected encore appearance on the pool deck. Just 15 years old at the time, Hoff wilted under the enormous amount of Olympic pressure.

It was caught on camera. It happened. Hoff can't pretend it didn't, and truth be told, she probably wouldn't want to anyway. Looking back, that experience in 2004 went a long way toward defining the kind of steely competitor she is today.

In fact, without that moment in Athens, Hoff wouldn't have two medals already stowed in her luggage, ready for the trip back to Maryland. Her latest came today when she won silver in the 400-meter freestyle. It was an exciting duel in which Hoff essentially had gold already around her neck before watching it get snatched away at the last moment. With four events still to come, more medals are likely on the way.

Knowing this, does she really have to suffer through the daily questions about vomiting for the rest of her life? Reporters and cameramen crowd around Hoff, poking and probing her psyche, revisiting the Athens pool and asking her to relive one of the most raw and vulnerable moments of her young life. It's enough to make me sick.

If I've tired of the endless trip down bad-memory lane, don't you think she's tiring of it?

"A little bit," she said with a grin. "But I feel like I'm starting to kind of prove myself, that I can handle the nerves, so hopefully maybe you guys will ease up a little bit."

Hoff started laughing, but for someone who wants to study journalism, she's already getting quite an education. Actually, she's delivering an education of sorts. In 2004, we were reminded how exacting the scrutiny can cut and how heavy the weight can feel. And this week, she's showing everyone how resilient the spirit can be and how poised a champion must act.

"It's so hard," she says. "... People say: 'Don't worry about it. Think of it as just another meet.' Well, it's not another meet."

Given that, it makes what she's doing this week all the more impressive. Before races, admittedly, she still feels that 15-year-old girl deep inside, stirring in her stomach, pleading to come out.

But she bats it down. She gets on the blocks. And when she hits the water, she does what few can do.

In yesterday's 400 individual medley, Hoff swam 4minutes, 31.71seconds, about what she expected (though probably several tenths short of what she dreamed). What she couldn't help was two other swimmers - Australia's Stephanie Rice and Zimbabwe's Kirsty Conventry - swam below the world-record pace.

Long before Hoff boarded a plane for China, she seemed to come to terms with what she could control and what she couldn't.

"You just have to say, 'I'm going to go out there and try to have my best swim.' If it ends up I get a gold, awesome," she said before the Games.

Still, in her first Olympic event yesterday, a medal is a medal. Not only was it her first, but she also hoped it would take the pressure off her chase for more.

"Getting a bronze does still leave me a little bit hungry for something a little bit higher," she said. "It's going to drive me all week."

She took that motivation into the pool today in the 400 freestyle. A night earlier, in the preliminaries, Hoff set an Olympic record. She was barely out of the pool when Italy's Federica Pellegrini and Great Britain's Rebecca Adlington topped her mark.

In the finals, Hoff had a comfy lead over the final 100 meters, but Adlington amazingly caught her from behind over the course of the final few strokes. The margin of victory was indistinguishable to the human eye. Adlington finished in 4:03:22, just .07 of a second ahead of Hoff.

Hoff has one day to catch her breath but then faces a grueling schedule Wednesday, when she has a shot at gold in the 200-meter freestyle and the 200 IM.

Perhaps a couple of more medals will push the dialogue forward, move the story line from 2004's growing pains to 2008's medal haul.

If it doesn't, no worries - Hoff has memorized her answers and is capable of answering just about anything.

In fact, she remembers one reporter who noted her silver earrings and asked: "Do you prefer silver? Does that mean you prefer a silver medal?"

Hoff said: "I was like, 'My earrings have nothing to do with the medal I want.' I honestly want the gold."

Two races down, she still has four more opportunities. Already, though, Hoff has shown she has moved past that 2004 nightmare - even if everyone else hasn't.

rick.maese@baltsun.com
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