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Hard as it is to imagine 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 one summer-league season. Now look at her. After every race she swam at the national championships in Irvine, Calif., last week, the 17-year-old could be found on the deck of the warm-down pool, making 50-cent bets with Larry the Lactate 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 her North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates. "I'm just really competitive. Betting keeps things interesting." It also brings in extra cash. "She swept our bets this week," says the Lactate Guy, whose real name is Larry Herr and whose title is performance database director for USA Swimming. "She won $6.50 off me."
Hoff had an even better week in the pool. She won her two signature races, setting an American record in the 200-meter individual medley (2:10.05) and turning in the fastest 400 IM time (4:35.82) ever swum in the U.S. She also came within a finger's length 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 to it, she could do well in the Olympics in the 200 back, the 200 fly and the 200 breaststroke too."
As a 15-year-old, Hoff was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic swim team in Athens. Racked by nerves, she had a disastrous meet, finishing seventh in the 200 IM and failing to qualify for the finals in the 400 IM. She rebounded spectacularly at the world championships last summer, winning gold medals in those two events as well as one in the 4�200 free relay. "I've learned to relax and calm myself before races by taking deep breaths," says Hoff.
Hoff has already qualified 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-year endorsement deal, the longest such contract in company history. "Chances are 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 greatest swimmers in the history of our country."
For now Hoff is just one of a crew of young but seasoned swimmers who will join five-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin in a quest to reestablish the U.S. as the dominant women's team in the world. The first test will come at the Pan Pacific championships, which begin on Aug. 17 in Victoria, B.C. The American women face a tough task. Since they won 10 medals (including three gold) in Athens--a yield that barely beat that of the Aussie women (nine medals, four golds)--the competition has gotten stiffer.
During the European championships in Budapest last week, German women set three world records in sprint freestyle events, including a scorching 7:50.82 in the 4�200 relay that lopped 2.6 seconds off the mark established by the U.S. team in Athens. Add to that the emergence of the Australian sprinters in the last two years, says Schubert, "and we recognize that we need to improve in the sprints between now and 2008. So we're focusing on the 100 and 200 free."
Schubert was pleased to see greater depth in the 200 free at Irvine--four women broke 1:59 in the preliminaries in the event, which Coughlin won in 1:58.11--and improved speed from 20-year-old Amanda Weir of Lawrenceville, Ga., who shaved .41 of a second off Coughlin's American record in the 100 free with a time of 53.58.
Weir's Olympic relay teammate Kara Lynn Joyce, a 20-year-old senior at the University of Georgia, reached a milestone of her own in the 50 freestyle--she won the event in 24.97, her first time under 25 seconds--with the aid of a new sport she took up this summer: boxing. "It has helped tone my fast-twitch muscles," says Joyce. "If I want to be competitive on the international level, I need to get a lot faster. I'm ready to do that."
Ziegler, 18, and Jessica Hardy, 19, are already proven world beaters. At last summer's world championships Ziegler won gold medals in the 1,500 and 800 freestyles, and Hardy set a world record of 1:06.20 in the 100 breaststroke semifinals before finishing second in the final to Australia's Leisel Jones. "I hate losing at anything," says Hardy, now a sophomore at Cal. "I am so competitive that when we go to Starbucks before a meet, I have to be the first in line."
In the 100 breaststroke in Irvine, Hardy tied 2004 Olympian Tara Kirk for second behind 2000 Olympic champion Megan Jendrick. "I wasn't really happy with my swim," Hardy said. "It's just the beginning of the season. I'm not as rested as I'm going to be for Pan Pacs."