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Last August, Olympian Katie Hoff was in her seventh year of swimming for Michael Phelps's old club, North Baltimore Aquatics (NBAC), and was ensconced among family and friends in Maryland. "I couldn't have imagined moving to Southern California," she says. Yet when she heard that USA Swimming was starting a new professional and postgraduate training center in Fullerton, Calif., to be headed by Olympic assistant Sean Hutchison—the creative and popular coach who developed Olympic champion breaststroker Megan Jendrick and 200 IM world champion Ariana Kukors at King Aquatics in Seattle—Hoff wanted in. So did Kukors and 2008 Olympic medalists Caroline Burckle, Margaret Hoelzer and Kara Lynn Joyce. That quintet constitutes the highest-octane training group of female swimmers ever assembled.
"It just sort of happened," says Hutchison, 38. "I wasn't allowed to recruit, so I crossed my fingers and hoped someone would show up."
The Fullerton center is one of three training centers established by USA Swimming since 2007 exclusively for professional and postgrad swimmers. (The others are NBAC and Mecklenburg Aquatics in Charlotte.) Hutchison got the Fullerton post in part because of his outside-the-box approach: He eschews stopwatches, stressing technical perfection over times; usually runs one daily practice instead of two; and prefers that his swimmers train in a 33 1/3-meter pool (as opposed to 25 or 50 meters) because, he says, they have "no emotional attachment" to times achieved at that distance. He often speaks about creating "a moving piece of art" in the water. Moreover, says Hoff, Hutchison "wants you to be happy as a person. He believes that translates to your swimming."
Happiness is a key goal for Hoff, 21. After a 2008 Olympics she calls "bittersweet"—she had been projected to win three gold and three silver medals but left Beijing with one silver and two bronzes—she switched from her longtime coach, Paul Yetter, to Bob Bowman, Phelps's coach. But she and Bowman never quite clicked. Asked to do heavy weightlifting for the first time in her life, she says, "I felt beaten down right away. Then I continued to spiral down and lose confidence." When she failed to qualify for the worlds last summer after battling a respiratory illness, she says, "I hit rock bottom. I needed a fresh start. I needed to feel good about swimming again."
It's too early in the Olympic cycle to assess how the move to Fullerton has affected the racing of Hoff and her fellow pilgrims, but an important test will come at the National Championships in Irvine Aug. 3--7, the selection meet for the Pan Pacifics and the 2011 worlds. "We can make all the art we want," Hutchison says, "but if we don't swim fast, no one is going to care."
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