THE U.S. WOMEN'Sswim team coach, Jack Bauerle, heard the unusual noises rising through thefloor of his room at the team's training camp hotel in Palo Alto, Calif., inJuly: muffled shouts, admonitions, denials, trash talk. "It didn't soundlike a typical card game," he says. It wasn't. In the room below,19-year-old Katie Hoff was taking on a roomful of male teammates in a bitterlyfought game of Risk.
This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2008 issue
When 1,500-meterspecialists Larsen Jensen and Erik Vendt played the war board game against Hoffin Athens four years ago, the two had to cheat to beat the then 15-year-old.After learning of their treachery recently, Hoff had vowed to watch them"like a hawk" during their games in Palo Alto, but despite hervigilance and her advance study of Risk strategy on the Internet, her bid forglobal domination on the game board came up short. "I'm proud to say I wonmost of the games," says Vendt.
World supremacy inthe Olympic pool will be no easier for Hoff and the American women in Beijing.After arriving in China as underdogs to the Australians, they found themselvesunder siege from all corners of the planet. Over the first three days of finalsat the cavernous Water Cube, swimmers from four countries won six gold medalsin the women's events. The U.S. had just one: In the 100-meter backstroke,25-year-old Natalie Coughlin successfully defended her Olympic title on Tuesdaywith a time of 58.96 seconds, holding off world-record holder Kirsty Coventryof Zimbabwe. "When I first saw the 1 by my name, I thought they had made amistake," Coughlin said.
Two days earliershe helped the U.S. upset the Aussies for a silver in the 4 √ó 100 freestylerelay—the Netherlands won the gold—but the women from Down Under otherwiselooked as strong as advertised. In the 100 butterfly the eternally sunny LibbyTrickett won the first of what is expected to be an Australian women'sindividual record of four gold medals in one Games. (Later this week she'lldefend her world records in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle events and swim inthe 4 √ó 100 medley relay.) To punctuate her country's strength in the event,her visibly stressed-out teammate Jessicah Schipper won the bronze even thougha wardrobe malfunction—she couldn't get the zipper on her Speedo LZR Racerup—forced her to change into an old suit just moments before the race.Finishing in between the two was a pleasant surprise for the U.S.'s ChristineMagnuson, 22, who won the silver after setting an American record in thesemis.
Most of the U.S.women's swimming medals are expected to come from just two sources, Hoff andCoughlin, who are shouldering a withering load of six events each in Beijing.Hoff is competing in five individual events in addition to the 4 √ó 200 freerelay, a program that is nearly as ambitious as that of her former NorthBaltimore Aquatics teammate Michael Phelps. Even Coughlin, who is adding oneevent, the 200 IM, to the five she won medals in four years ago, is impressed.Says Coughlin, who will likely face Hoff in the 200 IM final and team with herin the 4 √ó 200 freestyle relay, "Katie is taking on a huge, hugechallenge."
Hoff got a senseof what she's up against on Sunday morning when she came in third in a 400 IMrace that saw both winner Stephanie Rice of Australia and runner-up Coventrybreak Hoff's world record and beat the 4:30 barrier for the first time. In the400 freestyle a day later, Hoff led the field for most of the final 200 metersbefore getting outtouched by Rebecca Adlington, who came from a second and ahalf back in the last lap to win Great Britain's first swimming gold medalsince 1960. "It was kind of a drag race," said Hoff. "Obviouslythere's a bit of disappointment because it was so close. But I got a bronzemedal yesterday and a silver medal today, and so, if I keep climbing up likethis, I'll be happy."
No matter whatcolor medals she collects, Hoff's Beijing experience has already been a bigimprovement over her first Olympics. In Athens, Hoff, the youngest member ofthe entire U.S. Olympic team, was overcome by nerves in her first event, the400 IM, and threw up on the pool deck after finishing 17th in the prelims. Sherecovered to come in seventh in the 200 IM.
Since then she hasturned professional—in 2006 she signed a 10-year deal with Speedo, then thecompany's longest contract with an athlete—won six world championship goldmedals, broken the 400 IM world record twice and expanded her repertoire toinclude the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle events. Her coach, Paul Yetter,thinks she's not far from being a medal threat in the 100 free as well."What she lacks right now is consistency," he says.
Out of the water,Hoff has matured into "a really cool chick," says teammate AmandaBeard. "What's remarkable about her is all the ways she hasn'tchanged," says Vendt. "She's still down-to-earth and humble."
When she's nottaking on the boys in Risk—a game she insists she "rocks" at—she'slearning new steps at her hip-hop dance classes or gambling the contents of herchange purse on all manner of small-stakes bets. To feed her hypercompetitivespirit, she'll make wagers with friends on just about anything: how fast shecan swim a practice set, which swimmer in a race will make the Olympic team,how many times she can say "definitely" during a press conference."I have a gambler's personality, and I think that translates intoswimming," she says. Taking on two events in one session, as she wasscheduled to do on Aug. 13, when she was expected to swim the 200 free and the200 IM, is a telling example. "I could look like a fool," Hoff says."But it's not like I'm taking a total risk, because I've trained for it.I've done doubles at nationals, at worlds. It's not completely foreign tome."
Hoff's preparationgoes beyond her work in the pool. She and Yetter frequently discuss thedefining strengths of great athletes, from Tracy Caulkins's versatility toMichael Jordan's attitude ("He always said, 'You can't do things you don'texpect to do,'" says Yetter) to 2004 track gold medalist Jeremy Wariner'sdistance per stride at the end of an exhausting 400-meter run. Yetter thinksthe strength that defines Hoff at this point in her career is her attitude."She has a lot of fun, but when it comes down to doing what she needs to doin the pool on a daily basis, she is focused and undeterred," says Yetter,who has worked with Hoff since 2003. "She does things in practice and inracing that are impossible to ignore. The plan wasn't for her to be a great 800swimmer; it's something we've stumbled upon because she is such a well-roundedswimmer." Likewise, Hoff became a serious contender in the 400 freestyletwo years ago when she lopped four seconds off her best time at nationals."She did that 20 minutes after she set the American record in the 200IM," says Yetter. "It became one of those things where we said, Well,the sky's the limit now."
COUGHLIN, a Calgrad who still trains with college coach Teri McKeever, has similar talent,though she has sometimes bridled at the expectations that come with it.Coughlin holds the American record in the 100 butterfly and the 100 free, andshe was the world-record holder in the 100 backstroke for all but a few minutesof the last six years until Coventry broke her mark in the semis. Anyone couldsee that she should have been swimming the IMs, the events that established heras a star when she was a rising young swimmer a decade ago, but after shefinished fourth in the 200 IM in the 2000 Olympic trials while struggling tocome back from a shoulder injury, Coughlin essentially abandoned the event,swimming it only rarely and not training for it. "Growing up, I hadproblems with a [certain] coach, and for a long time the 200 IM brought backbad memories of being told I'm not doing as well as I should," saysCoughlin. "I had a lot of emotional baggage with the IM."
Unexpectedly, thatweight began to dissipate at a meet at Stanford this spring when Coughlindecided to swim the 200 IM on a lark. Swimming in lane 1 in the finals, sheshaved four seconds off her lifetime best, which she had set at age 16. At theJanet Evans Invitational in early June, Coughlin again swam the 200 IM,basically because she had nothing else to do that day. She ended up breakingHoff's American record. "I screamed when I saw the result," shesaid.
Even so, shedidn't decide to try to qualify in the event at the Olympic trials until herfiancé, Ethan Hall, urged her to consider it about a week beforehand. If Hallhadn't succeeded, McKeever was standing by, ready to make, as she puts it,"a suggestion."
That's a tellingchoice of words, because Coughlin clearly calls the shots in her career. AfterPhelps shattered his world record in the 400 IM on Sunday, he told reportersthat he had made a deal earlier with his coach, Bob Bowman, that the race wouldbe his last 400 IM—if he set a record. Coughlin doesn't make deals. She is, asPresident Bush, who made a flag-waving appearance at the Water Cube at thebeginning of the week, would say, the decider. "I'm 25, I don't really liketo be told what to do," she says. "I'm stubborn that way."
Stubborn is nothow the teammates who voted Coughlin a tri-captain—along with the 26-year-oldBeard and 41-year-old Dara Torres—describe her. They admire her poise, herconfidence, her life balance, her leadership. This summer she is using herstatus as an Olympian to promote Hearts of Gold, a program that benefits Rightto Play, a humanitarian organization that helps children who have been affectedby war, poverty and disease. "Natalie has that perfect-role-model type ofpresence about her," says freestyler Lacey Nymeyer.
But Coughlin is asfiercely competitive as Hoff. When Hayley McGregory broke Coughlin's 100backstroke world record in the preliminaries at the Olympic trials in Omaha,Coughlin took it back two minutes later. She brings the same fire as ateammate. "The thing I appreciate about Natalie is that she'll lay it downon the relays," says Bauerle. "You wouldn't guess it by seeing her,because she's not rah, rah, rah, but she wants to win."
Bauerle says histeam's main mission is to win more medals than the 10 it collected in Athens.After three days at the Cube, the U.S. women were well on their way with seven.Coughlin, Hoff et al. might not be on the verge of global domination, but theyare making noise.
More from KelliAnderson on Katie Hoff's showdown with Kate Ziegler in the 800 free atSI.com/Olympics.