Four years ago, Katie Hoff was 15 and the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic Team. A candidate for medals in two swimming events, she buckled under pressure she wasn’t equipped to handle.
But this year, says the woman who is being called “the female Michael Phelps,” will be different.
“This time around I’m more prepared for it,” the 19-year-old told TODAY’s Matt Lauer in a prerecorded interview that aired Monday. “I've gone through almost four years of international meets and swimming at the top level. So I feel comfortable with it.”
She’s friends with Phelps, with whom she trained for years in Baltimore. And she isn’t bothered by being compared to a man who may be the greatest swimmer ever.
“It’s definitely an honor. The guy is amazing. He's accomplished so much,” Hoff said. “I don't think I’m quite there yet. I think I get compared a lot just because of my versatility. I can do a lot of different strokes just like he can.”
Hoff tied an American record at the Olympic Trials this month by winning five events. At the Olympics, she’ll also swim in two relays, giving her a shot at seven gold medals, three more than any American woman has ever won at one Olympics and the same number Mark Spitz won in 1972. Phelps, who is four years older than she, won six gold and eight total in Athens. This year, he’s shooting for Spitz’s record.
She hated the waterAs a little girl, no one would have predicted that she’d ever enter a swimming pool, let alone become a threat to win multiple gold medals. Hoff admitted that she used to hate getting her face or head wet and fought efforts to shampoo her hair.
“I must have been a dirty kid, because I hated my head under,” she laughed.
But she got over it and started swimming in competition, although not really competitively. She was more interested in winning a pretty ribbon than winning a race.
“I remember just kind of swimming for, ‘Oh, I like that purple ribbon’ or ‘I like that pink one,’ which was obviously not first,” she said. The concept of beating everybody didn’t click in until she was 8 or 9, Hoff said. “I saw my friend ahead of me, and I was like, ‘I do not like this!’ ” she told Lauer.
In Athens, she finished 17th and seventh in her two events, and she’s using that as motivation this year. Hoff isn’t making any predictions. But she did talk about how overwhelmed she was in 2004, when she hadn’t even expected to make the team when she went to the trials a month before the games.
Making the team, she told Lauer, was “pretty surreal. It wasn't like I had been on other teams for the United States before that; hadn't been out of the country. It was just kind of blew my mind.”
Learning from 2004
It all happened so quickly, Hoff’s parents didn’t even have time to raise the money to travel to Athens to watch her compete. Hoff compensated by running up a huge phone bill calling home.
When it was all over and the reality of her performance sank in, Hoff said, “I was really mad. Mad and disappointed.”
Hoff blossomed in 2005, when she won two gold medals at the world championships. Two years later, she won three more, setting two world records in the process.
She’s no longer the girl who had never left home. She’s even been to China in advance of the Olympics, touring the country and walking the Great Wall with Phelps. Talking with Lauer, she was relaxed, smiling and laughing easily and often.
“Do you close your eyes and think about what it would sound like to stand on that platform and hear the national anthem?” Lauer asked.
“Goose bumps all over,” Hoff said, admitting that the thought has crossed her mind more than once. “It’s what keeps me coming to practice every day and keeps me pushing hard. It would definitely be a dream come true.”