Hard as it is toimagine now, there was a time when Katie Hoff found swimming too competitive.She was five years old, and she quit the sport for a year after just onesummer-league season. Now look at her. After every race she swam at thenational championships in Irvine, Calif., last week, the 17-year-old could befound on the deck of the warm-down pool, making 50-cent bets with Larry theLactate Guy on how much lactic acid would show up in her postrace blood test."Some people laugh at me and say I need to go to Gamblers Anonymous,"says Hoff, who frequently makes small-stakes wagers on practice swims with herNorth Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates. "I'm just really competitive.Betting keeps things interesting." It also brings in extra cash. "Sheswept our bets this week," says the Lactate Guy, whose real name is LarryHerr and whose title is performance database director for USA Swimming."She won $6.50 off me."
Hoff had an evenbetter week in the pool. She won her two signature races, setting an Americanrecord in the 200-meter individual medley (2:10.05) and turning in the fastest400 IM time (4:35.82) ever swum in the U.S. She also came within a finger'slength of winning the 200 and 400 freestyles. "Katie is phenomenal,"says Ray Benecki, who coaches Kate Ziegler, the winner of the 400 free."Being an IMer, she has the world in front of her. If she put her mind toit, she could do well in the Olympics in the 200 back, the 200 fly and the 200breaststroke too."
As a 15-year-old,Hoff was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic swim team in Athens. Racked bynerves, she had a disastrous meet, finishing seventh in the 200 IM and failingto qualify for the finals in the 400 IM. She rebounded spectacularly at theworld championships last summer, winning gold medals in those two events aswell as one in the 4√ó200 free relay. "I've learned to relax and calm myselfbefore races by taking deep breaths," says Hoff.
Hoff has alreadyqualified for the 2008 Olympic trials in all 13 women's individual events.Speedo thinks her potential is so enormous it signed her to a 10-yearendorsement deal, the longest such contract in company history. "Chancesare Katie Hoff is going to produce, if not now, in the future," says U.S.head coach Mark Schubert. "She is on a trajectory to be one of the greatestswimmers in the history of our country."
For now Hoff isjust one of a crew of young but seasoned swimmers who will join five-timeOlympic medalist Natalie Coughlin in a quest to reestablish the U.S. as thedominant women's team in the world. The first test will come at the Pan Pacificchampionships, which begin on Aug. 17 in Victoria, B.C. The American women facea tough task. Since they won 10 medals (including three gold) in Athens--ayield that barely beat that of the Aussie women (nine medals, four golds)--thecompetition has gotten stiffer.
During theEuropean championships in Budapest last week, German women set three worldrecords in sprint freestyle events, including a scorching 7:50.82 in the 4√ó200relay that lopped 2.6 seconds off the mark established by the U.S. team inAthens. Add to that the emergence of the Australian sprinters in the last twoyears, says Schubert, "and we recognize that we need to improve in thesprints between now and 2008. So we're focusing on the 100 and 200free."
Schubert waspleased to see greater depth in the 200 free at Irvine--four women broke 1:59in the preliminaries in the event, which Coughlin won in 1:58.11--and improvedspeed from 20-year-old Amanda Weir of Lawrenceville, Ga., who shaved .41 of asecond off Coughlin's American record in the 100 free with a time of 53.58.
Weir's Olympicrelay teammate Kara Lynn Joyce, a 20-year-old senior at the University ofGeorgia, reached a milestone of her own in the 50 freestyle--she won the eventin 24.97, her first time under 25 seconds--with the aid of a new sport she tookup this summer: boxing. "It has helped tone my fast-twitch muscles,"says Joyce. "If I want to be competitive on the international level, I needto get a lot faster. I'm ready to do that."
Ziegler, 18, andJessica Hardy, 19, are already proven world beaters. At last summer's worldchampionships Ziegler won gold medals in the 1,500 and 800 freestyles, andHardy set a world record of 1:06.20 in the 100 breaststroke semifinals beforefinishing second in the final to Australia's Leisel Jones. "I hate losingat anything," says Hardy, now a sophomore at Cal. "I am so competitivethat when we go to Starbucks before a meet, I have to be the first inline."
In the 100breaststroke in Irvine, Hardy tied 2004 Olympian Tara Kirk for second behind2000 Olympic champion Megan Jendrick. "I wasn't really happy with myswim," Hardy said. "It's just the beginning of the season. I'm not asrested as I'm going to be for Pan Pacs."
Ziegler, a5'11" aspiring fashion buyer who dreams of having her own line of handbags,didn't have a flawless nationals either. She was at her best in a showdown withHoff and Hayley Peirsol in the 400 free. In third place at the final turn,Ziegler surged past the other two in the last 40 meters to win in 4:05.75,knocking three seconds off her best time. "With Katie there, stroke forstroke, I could never let my guard down," said Ziegler. "She pushed meto my greatest effort."
Peirsol, 20, theyounger sister of backstroke world-record holder Aaron, got revenge in the 800,beating Ziegler by more than a second, in 8:26.45. But Ziegler, whose trainingwas hampered by a case of anemia, was pleased with her performance. "That'sthree seconds faster than I've gone all year," she said. "I'm justgetting my strength back."
In the men'scompetition there were few upsets, as familiar names tightened their grips ontheir trademark events. Brendan Hansen shattered his own world records in the100 and 200 breaststroke, while Michael Phelps added five more national titlesto his hardware mountain, losing only the 200 back, to the elder Peirsol, whohasn't been beaten in the event since 2000. The only new face able to steal thespotlight from the established stars was 22-year-old Cullen Jones, who beatreigning Olympic gold medalist Gary Hall Jr. and seven-time national championJason Lezak to win the 50 free in 21.94, the fastest time in the world thisyear. Jones also came in third in the 100 free, earning him a spot on the 4√ó100relay team for the Pan Pacifics. Jones, who won the NCAA championship in the 50free for North Carolina State last March, is one of a handful ofAfrican-American males to have won a national title. He had a poster of Hallhanging over his bed when he was growing up in Irvington, N.J. "I saw himwinning, and his charisma and his strength on the deck, and that's what droveme," says Jones, who met Hall for the first time last week.
Elizabeth Beisel,a 13-year-old from North Kingstown, R.I., who was the surprise second-placefinisher in the 200 back, impressed her idol, Coughlin. "The youngerswimmers are the most dangerous," says Coughlin, 23. "They don't knowthe other swimmers, so they do these amazing things without worrying who theyare next to."
Even though theyare still teenagers, Ziegler, Hardy and Hoff have been around long enough toknow exactly whom they have to beat. While Hardy has Australia's Jones in hersights and Ziegler focuses on France's Laure Manaudou, the world-record holderin the 400 free, Hoff, not surprisingly, finds competition everywhere.
Her response tothe news that Italy's Alessia Filippi had swum a 4.35.80 in the 400 IM at theEuropean championships was to blaze to a 4:35.82 in the event three nightslater. Hoff's time didn't beat Filippi's, but it broke her own U.S. record by1.24 seconds.
Think Filippi'stime is safe for long? Don't bet on it.
Find more images from the national swimmingchampionships at SI.com/more.
Among the young stars who surfaced at the nationals in Irvine were (clockwisefrom top left): Weir, Hardy, Joyce, Hoff and Ziegler.¬†
Hoff set a U.S. record in the 200-meter IM (above), then was edged by a stunnedZiegler (below, left) in the 400 free.