OMAHA, Neb.—In the eyes of the world, Katie Hoff has always been a great swimmer. That was obvious, even when she was 14 years old.
But at age 19, on the eve of her second Olympic Games, Hoff has become something more. Something that cannot be taught and cannot be acquired even with hours of training.
She has become an elite racer.
There is a difference between the two, swimmer and racer, and it is becoming increasingly evident - especially after last night's performance at the U.S. Olympic trials - that Hoff is mastering the latter.
She won the 200-meter freestyle and the 200-meter individual medley last night, setting American records in each, even though they took place just 40 minutes apart. But the way she won them was even more impressive than her times.
Hoff was even with Allison Schmitt and Caroline Burckle with 25 meters to go in the 200 freestyle. And in the heat of the moment, she found something extra and outraced them to the wall in 1 minute, 55.88 seconds.
It was a similar story in the 200 IM, where Hoff went 2:09.71. Natalie Coughlin grabbed an early lead and looked as if she might run away with it, and then Hoff reeled her in and passed her with meters to spare.
A younger Katie Hoff might have balked at such challenges. Mentally, she hated thinking about other competitors. It made her too nervous. These days, she's become a pool shark. If it's a dead heat, then bet on Hoff.
She still gets nervous before big races. Mentally, her approach is to focus on her own race, not the woman next to her. But in the pool, she can close as fast as, or faster than, any other woman in the world.
"I think it has just come with maturity and experience," Hoff said. "Four years ago, I feel like I was a completely different person. Hadn't experienced any big meets at all. I still get just as nervous, but I've learned to deal with it and hide it a little bit."
Composure and conditioning have long been Michael Phelps' greatest attributes, but it is sometimes hard for him to swim the way he wants when the only thing pushing him is the Ghost of Swims Past.
That's especially true in the 200-meter butterfly. Phelps posted the second-fastest time ever in that event last night (1:52.20), barely missing his own world record. But he wasn't pleased. He stared down the scoreboard with what can fairly be described as contempt.
"I just don't think I took the race out like I should have," Phelps said. "I was too relaxed the first 50 [meters]. ... I won't make that same mistake again."
Phelps and Hoff have had a perfect meet thus far, winning every event they've entered.
He swam a personal best time in the preliminaries of the 100-meter freestyle (47.92) yesterday morning, then dropped the event two minutes later. His only goal was to post a time that would get him a spot on the 400-meter freestyle relay in Beijing, and he achieved that.
Phelps also made it official that he was dropping out of the 200-meter backstroke, a decision he made weeks ago but didn't reveal to the media until last night.
"It's much more fun this way," coach Bob Bowman said.
In fact, Bowman confessed that he never truly intended to enter Phelps in nine individual events at the trials. Though Phelps had no interest in swimming the 400-meter freestyle despite having a fast enough qualifying time, Bowman forgot to delete it from Phelps' application.
"An administrative error," Bowman said with a grin.
"I'd like to point out to everyone that Bob just admitted a mistake," Phelps teased.
Bowman, who is as intense and meticulous as anyone in swimming, offered only a shrug and a smile in return.