Hoff, Coughlin leave 200 individual medley worries in their wake
Considering the Olympic heartbreak the 200 IM had caused them in the past, both Katie Hoff and Natalie Coughlin approached Wednesday night's U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials finals with an surprising degree of calm.
"The 200 IM has been a tough race for me; it's been my race since I was 10," said Hoff, who won the event just about 45 minutes after taking first place in the 200 free. "I get really nervous for it. But tonight I was trying to relax and have fun with it."
Hoff rallied on the breaststroke and freestyle to win in 2:09.71, improving on Coughlin's American record of 2:09.77 set less than a month ago.
Coughlin, the runner-up, was also relatively carefree about a race that she has practically refused to swim for the last seven years.
"It was really fun to go into a race without expectations today," she said. "I wasn't even nervous going into that race. And I don't get to feel like that very often."
Frayed nerves for both would have been understandable. Consider the memory Hoff has from four years ago, when she was 15. She won both IMs at the trials, but in Athens she was overwhelmed by jitters and finished seventh in the 200 IM. She didn't even qualify for the finals in the 400 IM.
And Coughlin? She missed making the Olympic team as a 17-year-old in 2000 when she came in fourth in the 200 IM at Trials. Her problem wasn't nerves; it was a torn labrum that had plagued her for a year and prevented her from getting the training she needed. By the time she got the to Indianapolis for the trials --still a favorite despite her difficult year -- she was on the verge of burnout and just wanted to get the whole thing over with. "Indifferent" is how she once described her feelings about her lost opportunity.
Though she has since fulfilled her great promise as a swimmer many times over -- she won five medals in Athens and at one time or another has held American records in six different events and currently holds the world record in the 100 back -- Coughlin has rarely swum the 200 IM since 2000. ("Is there baggage around the 200 IM? Yes," says her coach, Teri McKeever.) In fact she used to avoid swimming the breast stroke at events specifically so no one would encourage her to do the IM.
Then at a meet at Stanford this spring she happened to be entered in both the 400 free and the 200 IM on a day when she was convinced her freestyle "looked terrible." So she decided to skip the 400 free and just do the 200 IM instead. Swimming in Lane 1 in the preliminaries, she dropped eight seconds off her previous time and four seconds off her lifetime best, which dated back to the year she was 16. At the Janet Evans Invitational in early June, she did the 200 IM again, this time because she had nothing else going on that day. That time she broke Hoff's two-year-old American record.
"I screamed out of shock when I saw the time," says Coughlin. "I haven't been consciously training for it. I think what happened is I'm figuring a lot of things out in my breaststroke, and my backstroke leg is now decent."
About a week ago, Coughlin decided to swim the event at the trials in Omaha. A chorus of coaches hallalujahed. "Most of the coaches in the country feel it's potentially her best event, because she really doesn't have a bad stroke," says National Team Director Mark Schubert.
"I think the IM might have become a mental block for her in the past," adds U.S. Olympic women's coach Jack Bauerle. "But I think the sky is the limit on her IM now. I don't think she hasn't even scratched the surface on that one. She has the speed in every stroke."
Coughlin has some time to consider what individual events she'll swim in Beijing. (She won the 100 back in world-record time on Tuesday night and still has the 100 free, in which she holds the American record, ahead of her.) So, too, does Hoff, who has won all four events she has entered so far and still has the 800 and 100 ahead of her. Bauerle is just glad both of them are on the team.
"They are different people entirely, but they both have a burning desire to succeed," he says. "You can say that about anyone at this level, but they take it to another level. They don't have much bravado, just a quiet strength. They're probably much more similar than they think in that regard."
Another way they are alike? They are both world-beaters, something the U.S. women don't have in the same gaudy numbers as the U.S. men. "We have a tough challenge ahead of us," says Bauerle. "So thank God we've got Natalie and Katie on our team."