As hard as it was, Katie Hoff watched the 2012 Olympics on TV, one month after the three-time 2008 medalist fell ill and failed to make the team for London at the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.
“It almost helped me a little bit, not pretending it didn’t happen, not going into a dark basement,” Hoff said in a phone interview Friday. “I watched as much as I could and had to deal with it.”
The toughest night was July 29, 2012, and the 400m freestyle final. Hoff tuned in to see friend Allison Schmitt race, but, before the start, a replay highlight was shown of the 2008 Olympic 400m freestyle.
Hoff relived the last 50m of that race in Beijing, when she led by 1.46 seconds off the last turn but was overtaken by Brit Rebecca Adlington in the final meters. She won silver in an American record, .07 of a second behind Adlington.
“That’s some salt in the wound, that I had to see that finish,” said Hoff, a seven-time world champion with three Olympic medals, but no golds. “It wasn’t fun.”
The word fun was tossed around by Michael Phelps at last week’s Mesa Grand Prix, his comeback after 20 months away from competition. Hoff once trained with Phelps at North Baltimore Aquatic Club and, like Phelps, took time away from the sport in 2012 and 2013. She, too, made her long-course meters return to competition in Mesa.
She watched Phelps’ press conference before the meet last Wednesday, when the 22-time Olympic medalist said at least six times in a 14-minute stretch that he’s enjoying his return because he’s having fun in training.
Hoff related to the mindset and texted him as much.
“Fun, like a 10-year-old,” Hoff said. “That’s the mentality I need to keep.”
Hoff’s career has been marked by tremendous achievements, including making her first Olympic Team at age 15 in 2004 and breaking her first world record at 18.
It’s also included plenty of stressful times, from vomiting poolside at the 2004 Olympics to having to swim at the 2008 Olympics under the media label “female Phelps” after she won five individual events at the Olympic Trials.
People will often tell Hoff, “You swam at the Olympics and won medals. That must be amazing.”
“Not that amazing,” Hoff responds. “Every time I’ve been at a big meet like that [Olympics, World Championships, even U.S. Championships], I’ve almost dread about the events. I’ve been stressed out and worried.
“It’s something that I always struggle with, staying relaxed.”
Hoff took a break from swimming after the 2012 Olympic Trials, moved from California to Florida and focused on earning her public relations degree at the University of Miami (she graduates next week). She was 23 years old and felt like swimming had stunted her growth.
“I just really wasn’t enjoying the sport,” Hoff said. “I tried multiple times throughtout the last quad, from 2008 to 2012, to really try to kind of recapture that [enjoyment]. I finally just said to myself, why am I putting myself through this? There’s so much more to life — school, I moved in with my boyfriend, fiancé, now.”
She considered it a sabbatical, but not yet a retirement.
“There was a little thing that I never really accomplished,” Hoff said, “This goal.”
So she stayed involved, serving as an athlete ambassador for the 2013 World Junior Championships in Dubai last August. She joined retired Olympic teammates Aaron Peirsol and Brendan Hansen to help with a camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., before those junior worlds. The three swimmers with 16 Olympic medals among them often ate lunch together at the Olympic Training Center.
Peirsol and Hansen got her thinking about diving in the pool again. She drew parallels from Hansen’s career, in particular.
He finished in third place in both breaststrokes at the 2000 Olympic Trials, where only the top two made the Olympic Team. Hansen then broke both breaststroke world records at the 2004 Olympic Trials but was beaten by Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Burned out, Hansen retired after 2008 and took up triathlons but returned for one more Olympic push three years later, saying he felt no pressure. He won the 100m breast at the Olympic Trials, squeaked into the Olympic final and felt ecstatic to finish third, what he called “the shiniest bronze medal ever.”
Hoff went through phases during her year away from competition — love swimming one week, hate it the next. She had moved across the country, to a new city, to a new school where she knew few people. Thoughts swirled inside her head.
It became clear when she finally got to Dubai and sat in the stands at a meet featuring the world’s best swimmers under 18 years old.
“Watching the kids go through everything that I had gone through, being nervous, getting ready for races, being excited,” Hoff said. “There have been many times in the past few years that I would have been like, ‘Thank God I’m not down there.’ This was the first time I watched and wished I could be swimming in an event.”
She flew back to Miami and jumped in the pool to train the next morning. Hoff kept her comeback low key late last year, entering smaller meets in Florida.
Attention increased in Mesa, her first Grand Prix meet since 2012. She appeared to get stronger as the three-day meet went on, winning the 200m individual medley on the final day by over two seconds over a field that included the top U.S. women from last summer’s Nationals, Elizabeth Beisel and Caitlin Leverenz.
Her focus going into the U.S. Championships this summer is on the 200m IM and the 200m freestyle. Nationals serve as a qualifying meet for the biggest international meets for 2014 and 2015, the Pan Pacific Championships and next year’s World Championships.
Hoff isn’t looking that far ahead. She called Mesa a good starting point, coming off the high of her engagement before throwing out a first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game April 20.
“It was the first time I’ve seen her smile since Beijing [in 2008],” said NBC Olympics swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines, who covered the Mesa meet for Universal Sports. “She’s still young.
“She’s certainly going to be somebody that I think people should definitely start to fear a little bit this summer, the other IMers especially, that once she gets things down, is a little dangerous.”
Hoff is swimming toward a goal, that one little thing she hasn’t accomplished. It’s not about medals or times, but mentality.
“I want to enjoy it and have fun. … Be at an Olympic Games, be at a Nationals, be at a World Championships and be excited,” she said. “Any elite swimmer will tell you that not being able to accomplish a goal is the most irritating and frustrating thing ever. If in 10 years, I looked back and saw I didn’t try one last time, I would regret it. It took me a full year, honestly, to look at a pool and be excited to get up in the morning and train my butt off.”