Olympics will shine Phelps-like spotlight on Hoff

Beijing Games promise to offer swimmer chance at making swimming history

Omaha, Neb.

In the universe of hypotheticals, the most popular impossibility buzzing around the pool is this:

Let's say the swimming world had no Michael Phelps. Maybe he was scared of the water as a child or preferred lacrosse as a teen, or maybe he simply didn't exist at all. In any case, if there were no Phelps, would Ryan Lochte be the "Michael Phelps" of these Olympics?

The consensus seems to be yes and, on the surface, that theory might hold water. After all, Lochte keeps finishing just a fingernail behind Phelps, most recently in last night's 200-meter individual medley, in which Phelps set a world record and Lochte touched the wall 0.42 of a second later, surely muttering, "Always a bridesmaid."

But let's set the hypothetical record straight, because there's another swimmer who's being overlooked in the discussion. If there were no Phelps, Katie Hoff would be the Michael Phelps of the coming Summer Games.

The buzz at this week's U.S. Olympics trials emanates from every corner of the pool. Phelps is the unchallenged rock star here. And on the women's side, Dara Torres seems to be a sentimental favorite, especially after the 41-year-old won last night's 100-meter freestyle and qualified for her fifth Olympics.

But the best story - the one that opens eyes, heightens hopes and deserves attention - is Hoff. Put simply, she's doing her best to steal the show here.

The intrigue of these Olympics will undoubtedly surround Phelps and his quest to top Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals. While that's more than fair, it's at least time to start asking whether Hoff can make history of her own.

With a first- or second-place finish in tonight's 800-meter freestyle, Hoff will be eligible to enter six races in Beijing. The women's swimming record for most medals won in a single Games is five, which happened three times: Shirley Babashoff in 1976, Torres in 2000 and Natalie Coughlin in 2004. The most golds is four (Amy Van Dyken in 1996).

The way Hoff is swimming, nothing she does in Beijing should surprise anyone. She's already rewriting the record book. If she can best Kate Ziegler tonight, Hoff will have won five individual races at these trials, which would tie Babashoff's trials record and give her seven total trials wins, which would equal Tracy Caulkins' career mark. Did I mention that Hoff is just a year removed from high school?

"I don't know if people really do appreciate how awesome she is," Jenny Thompson says. The most decorated women's swimmer in U.S. history, Thompson is in pretty good position to judge. She doesn't see a more dominant competitor on the women's side.

"Even when she was 14, she had the shine, the mentality of a champion," says Thompson, who has 12 Olympic medals from four Games. "I'm really happy that she's grown into the sport and grown into her success. She's just taking it to another level."

It's not hard to track Hoff's path. Her Olympic rise has paralleled that of Phelps, four years removed. Phelps first set foot on the Olympic stage as a 15-year-old, getting his feet wet at the 2000 Games. Hoff was 15 when she made her Olympic debut in Athens. Phelps blew up four years later, and Hoff is poised to do the same next month in Beijing.

"I think the fact that she grew up with Michael Phelps training, I think that probably adds sort of, 'Oh yeah, I can be the world-record [holder] in five events, it's not a big deal,'" Thompson says.

"I think she's going to have her own presence in Beijing. I think Michael had the prior success in other Olympics that makes him more notable and more public. But I think Katie has that opportunity in these Games, but also in the future as well."

Similar to the way Phelps became a topic for discussion at dinner tables across the country four years ago, Hoff is about to give everyone something to chew on this summer.

Sure, the tight-knit swimming community has known since Hoff returned home from Athens that her future was plenty bright. And she has reaffirmed that in nearly every meet since. But how many outsiders took notice? We've finally reached the part of the Olympic calendar when casual fans start to pay attention.

If you're just now tuning in, Baltimore is sending two remarkable athletes into the Beijing swimming pool, and both have a chance at history. (While there will probably be stiffer competition on the women's side next month, most agree that Hoff will only get better, and we might not fully realize how special she is until the 2012 Olympics - again, similar to Phelps.)

There was a time when the experts said we would have to wait a lifetime to find another swimmer as versatile and dominant as Michael Phelps. That might not be the case after all.

Turns out, we might have needed to wait only four years.

rick.maese@baltsun.com
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