Phelps barely holds off the best swimmer you've never heard of (cont.)
Breathtaking versatility is not limited to the men's side of the U.S. team. Phelps's former North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Katie Hoff launched her campaign to make the Olympic squad in six individual events by beating 15-year-old Elizabeth Beisel in the women's 400 IM on Sunday in a world-record 4:31.12. Four years ago, when she was 15, Hoff was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team in Athens. Overcome by nerves, she finished seventh in the 200 IM and didn't make the 400 IM final. Since then she has won six world-championship gold medals (two apiece in both individual medleys and the 800 free relay); set, lost and regained the world record in the 400 IM; and expanded her repertoire to include every freestyle event between the 100 and the 800. "You really have to go back to Shirley Babashoff, who won every freestyle event, the 100 through 800, and the 400 individual medley [at the 1976 Olympic trials] to see a swimmer as versatile," says national team director Mark Schubert, who coached Babashoff in the mid-'70s.
Hoff started swimming the 800 seriously just two years ago, yet at a meet in April she turned in a time of 8:19.70, the ninth fastest in history. At a meet in Columbia, Mo., in February, she knocked nearly a second off her PR in the 100 free, lowering it to 54.28. "All the coaches got excited and looked at each other, like, Wow, could she make the 4×100 relay too?" says Schubert.
Hoff wouldn't mind adding that to her list. "I like swimming lots of events because it takes the pressure off a little bit," she says. "You can kind of spread your nervous energy out through all of your events. You don't have to focus in on one and think, This is my only shot."
Because she has been focusing more on freestyle, Hoff had thought she'd have a better chance of setting a world record in one of those events at the trials than at regaining the IM mark she lost to Australian Stephanie Rice in March. "Stephanie really raised the bar when she broke my old record," she says. "This makes me excited for Beijing."
Joining Hoff and Phelps on the winner's podium on Sunday night was 22-year-old Olympic vet Larsen Jensen, who had to beat three of his best friends, Peter Vanderkaay, Vendt and Klete Keller, to win the 400 free, in an American-record 3:43.53. "I wish all four of us could go, but that's not the way it works," said Jensen, who is the first swimmer to hold all three American distance records (the 400, 800 and 1,500 free) at once since his mentor Brian Goodell in the early '80s. Jensen, who won silver in the 1,500 behind Aussie Grant Hackett in Athens, credits his improvement in the 400 in part to his coach at USC, Dave Salo. "We're taught to sprint the mile, more or less, so that takes care of the 400," Jensen says. And though he is reluctant to give this too much credit, it should be noted that he changed his routine by listening to music --"some heavy-metal junk," he says -- as he walked to the pool deck for Sunday's race. "I love Frank Sinatra more than anything, but it's not something you listen to before a race," he says. "I can't very well be thinking Fly Me to the Moon as I hit the water."
But in some sense, that is what many swimmers are thinking about at these Olympic trials -- going where they haven't gone before. For Hoff, it's becoming the first woman to win six events at one trials. For Phelps, it's winning eight gold medals at one Olympics. And for Lochte, it's preventing Phelps from doing that. "What he is going for, no one else has done that," says Lochte of Phelps. "If he does, that's awesome. If he doesn't, that means I've done something right."