Katie Hoff

Katie Hoff returns to swimming with unique goal

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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.”

U.S. coaches named for Pan Pacific Championships

Diamond League slate ends in Doha with record holders; TV, stream info

Mondo Duplantis
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The Diamond League season ends on Friday in the place where it was supposed to start — Doha.

Like many sports, track and field’s calendar was put in disarray by the coronavirus pandemic. The Doha meet, originally scheduled for April 17 to open an Olympic season, was postponed five months while other stops were canceled altogether.

Now, Doha caps an unlikely season that still produced stirring performances. NBCSN coverage starts at 12 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Gold also streams live for subscribers.

The headliner is Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis, a leading contender for Male Athlete of the Year. Duplantis, who twice bettered the world record in February at indoor meets, last week produced the highest outdoor clearance in history, too, breaking a 26-year-old Sergey Bubka record.

Duplantis can mimic Bubka on Friday by attempting to raise his world record another centimeter — to 6.19 meters, or more than 20 feet, 3 inches.

The deepest track event in Doha is the finale, the women’s 3000m, featuring 3000m steeplechase world-record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, 5000m world champion Hellen Obiri and rising 1500m runner Gudaf Tsegay.

Here are the Doha entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

11:18 a.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
11:33 — Men’s 200m
12:03 p.m. — Men’s 400m
12:08 — Women’s Long Jump
12:12 — Women’s 100m Hurdles
12:21 — Men’s 1500m
12:34 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
12:43 — Women’s 800m
12:56 — Women’s 100m
1:07 — Men’s 800m
1:18 — Women’s 3000m

Here are three events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 11:18 a.m.
Duplantis looks to complete a perfect 2020 against his two primary rivals — reigning world champion and American Sam Kendricks (who went undefeated in 2017) and 2012 Olympic champion and former world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France. Kendricks was the last man to beat Duplantis, at those 2019 World Championships, and is the only man to clear a height within nine inches of Duplantis’ best this outdoor season.

Women’s 100m — 12:56 p.m.
Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah looks poised to finish the year as the world’s fastest woman after clocking 10.85 seconds in Rome last week, her fastest time outside of Jamaica in more than three years. That’s one hundredth faster than countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce‘s best time of 2020. Thompson-Herah was fifth and fourth at the last two world championships after sweeping the Rio Olympic sprints. Like in Rome, her primary challengers in Doha are Ivorian Marie-Josée Ta Lou and 2018 U.S. champion Aleia Hobbs.

Women’s 3000m — 1:18 p.m.
A meeting of titans in a non-Olympic event. Chepkoech is the fastest steeplechaser in history by eight seconds. Obiri is the fastest Kenyan in history in the 3000m and the 5000m. Tsegay, just 23, chopped 3.26 seconds off her 1500m personal best in 2019, taking bronze at the world championships to become the second-fastest Ethiopian in history in that event. In all, the field includes five medalists from the 2019 Worlds across four different events.

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Iris Cummings, last living 1936 U.S. Olympian, has flown ever since Berlin

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Iris Cummings is one of the last living members of a historically significant, global group: athletes who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. She is the only U.S. Olympian from those Games believed to still be alive.

Cummings, a 99-year-old who still swims regularly, was one of 46 U.S. women (along with 313 U.S. men) who competed at the Berlin Olympics, best known for Jesse Owens triumphing in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Since swimmer Adolph Kiefer‘s death in May 2017, the breaststroker Cummings and canoeist John Lysak were the last living 1936 U.S. Olympians. Olympic historians recently learned that Lysak died in January at 105 years old (which Lysak’s family confirmed this week). Canadian Paul Tchir of the OlyMADMen keeps a list of the oldest living Olympians here.

Lysak, born in New Jersey, turned 4 years old when his mom died in 1918 due to the flu pandemic. He was orphaned by his father, overwhelmed with taking care of a farm and four children.

Lysak got a bike to handle a paper route as a boy. That allowed him to sneak down to the Hudson River and row with homemade boats with his younger brother, Steven, who became a 1948 Olympic gold and silver medalist.

“I couldn’t swim, but I floated with a log,” Lysak told NBC Sports for the 2016 film “More than Gold,” about Owens and the 1936 Olympics. “I grew up paddling.”

He specialized at the Yonkers Canoe Club, made the Olympic team and finished seventh in a 10km doubles event with James O’Rourke in Berlin. Lysak later became a Marine and served during World War II.

Lysak spent his last years in California, where Cummings learned to swim off the Pacific beaches as a girl around the time of the Great Depression.

Cummings credited an ability to become an Olympian and one of the first women to fly U.S. military aircraft to her parents, who met while serving in France during World War I. Her father was a medic and sports doctor. Her mother a member of the American Red Cross canteen service.

She said her father, an all-around athlete, gave up a chance to try out for the first modern Olympics in 1896 to attend Tufts University School of Medicine.

“My mother provided the intellectual and academic inspiration from her rare perspective as a woman college graduate and a high school language teacher when very few women ever went to college,” Cummings told NBC Sports in an interview for “More than Gold.”

In 1928, Cummings’ dad took her to her the National Air Races at what is now Los Angeles International Airport.

“I watched Charles Lindbergh at the peak of his fame fly in the air show,” she said.

In 1932, at age 11, Cummings was introduced to the Olympics in person. Her dad was a track and field official at those Los Angeles Games.

Iris Cummings
Iris Cummings (center) competed in the 200m breaststroke at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Courtesy Iris Cummings)

All of Cummings’ swimming up to age 13 came in the ocean due to a lack of pools. But from 1934 to ’36, she developed into an Olympian in the breaststroke. In 1936, a 15-year-old Cummings was offered a paid-for, round-trip, cross-country train ticket to swim at a national championships in Long Island, N.Y.

“My mother had to borrow money to buy her railroad ticket to accompany me,” she said.

In a telegraph after nationals, Cummings was told by a California club coach to stay back East for five weeks before Olympic Trials (also on Long Island) because they had no money to send her back and forth again.

“So my mother figured out how we could stay with my grandmother in Philadelphia with almost no place to swim,” Cummings said. They found a country club pool, where she swam after hours while a janitor cleaned.

Cummings placed third in the 200m breast at trials to make the team as its youngest member in an individual event. (Today, only the top two at trials per individual event make the Olympics.)

“They stated, ‘You have made the team, but we don’t have enough money to send all of you,'” Cummings said. “‘The S.S. Manhattan sails in five days. Get out and raise as much money as you can from your hometown.’ My mother and I telegraphed our local newspaper, and a small amount was sent in from Redondo Beach.”

Olympic team members took a 10-day trip on the ship to Germany. Swimmers had one 20-foot-by-20-foot pool in which to train while at sea.

“They pumped the saltwater into it, and it sloshed around as the ship rolled,” Cummings said in an LA84 Foundation interview.

After arriving in Hamburg, U.S. athletes took a boat train that had swastikas on it out of the port.

“Most of us were quite aware of the evolving difficulties or however you want to classify the rise of Nazism in Germany,” said Cummings, adding that U.S. swim coach Charlotte Epstein previously boycotted attending the Olympics. “We’d heard the same rumors [about a U.S. boycott]. We were all wondering if the Olympic committee was going to take action before the boat sailed. That had come up in most everyone’s minds.”

At the Opening Ceremony, Cummings was bored by speeches and instead said she took pictures of the Hindenburg flying above. She had no fear about being there.

“The concerns were from nations that had proximity to the situation like a Belgium, or Holland or Austria,” she said. “We’ve got this passport, I know Margie [Marjorie Gestring, a gold-medal diver at age 13] and I looked at this and said, we’ve got this special passport. They can’t touch us.”

Most of Owens’ events took place before Cummings was eliminated in the first round of the 200m breast. She nonetheless took advantage of passes for athletes to watch track and field at the Olympic Stadium. She saw all of Owens’ races, sitting in an athlete section about 15 or 20 rows above Hitler’s box.

“Whenever [Hitler] came in, we could see him down there,” she said. “He wasn’t very far away.”

Iris Cummings
(Courtesy Iris Cummings)

Eight decades later, Cummings still remembered the crowd cheering for Owens after his victories.

“The whole stadium was rooting for Jesse,” she said.

Soon after the team returned to the U.S., Cummings began attending the University of Southern California. She enrolled in a pilot training program in 1939, earned her license the next year and worked as a flight instructor during the war. Then she became a pilot for the AAF Ferry Command in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, later included in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs).

“None of us thought there were going to be Olympics in ’40,” she predicted, correctly. Not in 1944, either.

She estimated that she’s flown more than 50 types of airplanes.

“There were only 21 of us [women] who ever flew the P-38,” she said, “and there were only four of us who ever flew the P-61 Black Widow.”

After the war, marriage to Howard Critchell and childbirths, Cummings continued to race planes. She developed curricula for the Federal Aviation Administration, founded an aeronautics program at Harvey Mudd College and was inducted into the National Flight Instructors Hall of Fame, among many honors.

“I’ve been flying 76 years, and it’s a privilege to just be around,” she said shortly before she stopped piloting in 2016.

Cummings still flies as a passenger with a former student.

“It’s a treat to be up there with the elements and appreciate it all,” she said. “It’s you and the air movement and the wind and what you can do with your airplane.”

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