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Hoff swims into Beijing under the sonar

Celizic: They call Katie Hoff the female Michael Phelps. And she stands poised to win more medals than any American woman has ever won in one Olympics.

They call Katie Hoff the female Michael Phelps. And she stands poised to win more medals than any American woman has ever won in one Olympics.

And yet, when she joined a select group of U.S. swimmers on the dais for a pre-Olympics press conference, nobody had a question for her.

Michael Phelps and Dara Torres, the 41-year-old phenomenon had gone first in a separate press conference. Following them where a group that included Natalie Coughlin, Brandon Hanson, Ryan Lochte, Aaron Peirsol and Eric Shanteau, the swimmer who is putting off surgery for testicular cancer until after the games.

The media — and it was a big crowd for one of America’s premier teams — wanted to know a lot about Shanteau’s cancer. They wanted Hanson and Coughlin to talk about being team captains. But nobody had a question for Hoff until finally someone asked her about Phelps.

That’s pretty extraordinary for a 19-year-old who could become the greatest female swimmer in American history, a woman who has qualified in five individual events and will take one relay onto that list. The team’s coaches could put her in another relay, as well, which would give her a shot at seven medals. No American woman has ever won more than five at a single Olympics.

When Phelps arrived in Athens at the age of 19 — the same age as Hoff — in 2004, he was the biggest story of the swim meet from the first preliminary to the last relay. But here is Hoff, poised to make a similar kind of history, and it’s as if she barely exists.

She is truly swimming under the sonar, and she doesn’t mind it a bit.

“I’m not dealing with the media hype or any great pressure,” she told a modest group of reporters that finally deigned to dip into her thoughts when the swimmers split up for group interviews. Elsewhere, Shanteau was engulfed in a mob and Coughlin, who is after records of her own, had a big audience. None of it seemed to bother Hoff.

Once you know her history, you understand why this stealth swimmer stuff is fine with her. When last seen at the Olympics, Hoff was barfing on the pool deck in Athens after finishing 17th in the 400 medley and then trailing the pack and finishing next-to-last in the 200 medley. Then the youngest member of the team at 15 years and a couple of months, she spit the bit along with her lunch and dinner.

Even if she wanted to forget that experience, she’s not going to, not with reporters asking her about it every day. They’re not subtle about it. One question snapped at her like a wet pool towel was along the lines of, “How can you be sure you won’t do it again.”

Hoff just smiles. She’s heard the question phrased a thousand different ways over the years since Athens as she grew into her potential and out of her stage fright.

“Physically, emotionally, mentally, I’m 100 times better,” she says.

In 2004, she hadn’t even expected to make the Olympic team when she went to the trials a month before the Games. When she qualified in two events, she suddenly found herself packing for Athens and her first trip outside of the United States. It was so unexpected, her parents couldn’t even arrange to be there to offer their support.

“I had never swum against any foreigners at all,” Hoff said Wednesday. The experience was both overwhelming and bewildering. She says that she was incredibly nervous, but the symptoms she lists are more descriptive of fright.

Back then, she looked at the big Olympic pool and towering grandstands and said, “Wow!” In Beijing, she walked into the Water Cube, Beijing’s amazing swimming venue, and said, “Oh, god.”

The difference is in the tone she used in delivering those two sound bites. The first suggested, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” The second suggested, “Oh, god, isn’t this just the coolest thing you’ve ever seen?”

“I don’t feel like the whole world’s swirling around me,” she said. “Four years of experience has really helped me out.”

Of course, anybody can say she’s grown up. She still has to prove it in the pool. But she is a seasoned veteran now, no longer a kid amazed to find herself in the Olympics but a world champion who has come to the place she has spent the last four years expecting to be.

She’s not predicting six gold medals, and no one else is offering to do it for her. She’s got heavy competition in some of her events, especially Australian Stephanie Rice in the two medley races. The two have traded world records in the 400 and Rice holds the world record in the 200.

Hoff is also swimming the 200, 400 and 800-meter freestyle races for five individual events, plus the 4x200-meter freestyle relay.

She’s not thinking about setting records or winning medals, just swimming her best. She knows she’ll be nervous when she starts her quest on Saturday, but a good nervous, not a bad one.
Asked about her goals, all she’d say was this: “If I swim my best, I can be a contender for medals in all my events.”

But can she win six golds?

“That,” she said, “Is a lot to ask for.”