By Kevin Van Valkenburg
July 4, 2008
It seems that way because the two Baltimore swimmers are in the finals of some event virtually every night, and sometimes more than one. Last night at Qwest Center, it was the first time all week that neither Phelps nor Hoff was racing for a spot on the Olympic team.
No one would dispute that Hoff and Phelps are, for the most part, in a league of their own in terms of talent. But in their absence last night, it's worth posing the question: Couldn't more swimmers take on a larger, multi-event program?
Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, didn't hesitate before answering.
"Yes," he said. "It's funny, Kim Vandenberg did a double [Wednesday], in the 200 freestyle and the 200 butterfly. Very tough, because you have almost no time. She came out and said, 'That really wasn't so bad.' Michael and I were like, 'It's not that hard.' People could do it, but you have to practice and train to do it."
So why don't more swimmers try it?
"It's mental," Bowman said.
That's probably the most overlooked aspect of Phelps' and Hoff's success. Even though they have different approaches once they get to the pool - Hoff is full of nervous energy, and Phelps is steely cool - the North Baltimore Aquatic Club philosophy that frowns on specialization has produced two of the most diverse swimmers in the history of the sport.
Natalie Coughlin could probably swim just as many events as Hoff, but she nearly quit the sport when she was Hoff's age because of burnout, so she has decided to focus on a handful of events.
Ryan Lochte might be the closest thing to Phelps on the men's side because he competes in both individual medleys and both backstrokes, but he dropped out of the 200-meter freestyle this week to focus on his 100 backstroke, then failed to make the team.
"I wish swimming was longer than eight days at the Olympics," Phelps said. "I'd swim more events."
Hoff's coach, Paul Yetter, figured out in recent years that competing in multiple events helps Hoff as opposed to hindering her.
"The controlling of the nerves is a huge deal for Katie," Yetter said. "She's able to control her nerves a lot better now that she's older. The 200 IM used to be her best race, and so she put a lot of pressure on herself to do well in it. Now it's just one of several events she can do well in. ... Having quite a few races helps because she can kind of spread the nerves."
Even with a huge program full of distractions, Phelps and Hoff almost always swim their best when it matters. That's crucial at the trials, where the field is so strong, it can be more cutthroat than the Olympics. Brendan Hansen, the former world-record holder in the 200 breaststroke, stunned the Qwest Center crowd last night when he finished fourth in the event and failed to make the Olympic team.
"We don't know what happened," said Hansen's coach, Eddie Reese.
According to The New York Times, if Hoff wins the 200 freestyle and the 200 IM, she will be the first American swimmer to win multiple individual gold medals in the same night since John Nabor did it in 1976.
Does she believe she can pull it off?
"Definitely," Hoff said, "because [Wednesday night] I had 40 minutes, and in Beijing I have an hour and 28 minutes exactly. That will make it a lot easier."
The only blemish on Hoff's schedule this week has been the 100 freestyle. She failed to make the final last night, swimming slower than her time in the preliminaries, which might make it tough for the U.S. coaches to justify putting her on the 400 freestyle relay. She'll still be a serious medal contender in five individual events, assuming she makes the team in the 800 freestyle and the 800 relay.
The Associated Press figured out that Hoff is swimming more total meters than Phelps this week, which made the 19-year-old from Towson laugh when reporters relayed that information to her.
"That actually gives me some ammunition against him when he bugs me, so thank you for that," Hoff said.
Phelps just keeps churning along this week, managing his energy in the preliminaries and semifinals, then wowing the capacity crowd at Qwest Center when it's time to go all out. Phelps said this week that the 2008 Olympic trials are an entirely different experience from the 2004 trials in Long Beach, Calif., because he doesn't swim every race full throttle anymore.
"At this point, it's just like adrenaline," he said. "It doesn't matter how tired you are. I have two more events left, and those are probably my most fun events. I have Lochte in the 200 IM and [Ian] Crocker in the fly, so it's just going to be fun."
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