Older, wiser Hoff on verge of becoming America's newest golden girl

OMAHA, Neb. -- Think back to when you were 15.

(Or, for the younger readership, project ahead to being 15. But first, clean your room.)

Imagine yourself at that vulnerable age, being thrust into the worldwide spotlight of the Olympic Games. Imagine being the youngest member of the entire American Olympic delegation. Imagine, as a skinny kid, dealing with expectations of winning a gold medal after posting the fastest time in the world that year in the 400-meter individual medley. Imagine the pressure piled on a child too young to drive.

How would you handle it?

Probably about the same way Katie Hoff handled it in 2004 in Athens. She cracked like an egg dropped from a helicopter. Swam like a scared adolescent. Finished 17th, failing to make it out of the preliminaries.

To cap off the nightmare, she climbed out of the pool and threw up. Some Olympic experience, huh?

"I kind of let the nerves get to me a little bit," said Hoff, who also finished seventh in the 200 IM in Athens. "Although it was bad at the time, I'm kind of glad it happened."

In part because of hard lessons learned in that meet, the 19-year-old Katie Hoff bears little resemblance to the 15-year-old Katie Hoff. Bigger, faster, older, wiser and calmer, she's come to Omaha and done the unthinkable -- stolen the spotlight from the king of chlorine, Michael Phelps. And the way she's swum here, winning the first four events she's entered, don't expect a repeat of her '04 breakdown in Beijing.

"Four years ago, I was just a completely different person," Hoff said.

"She's grown up," Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, said.

For just about her entire life, swimming had been a stroll for Hoff. She'd worked like a demon, sure, but the results were an easy dominance. She set national age-group records, and unleashed her precocious talents at the 2004 swimming trials by winning both IMs. She turned pro that year to take advantage of endorsements from Speedo and others.

Then came the gag in Greece. For once, Hoff failed. Spectacularly. And with the world watching.

Painful as it was, it probably was a necessary trauma to help her progress. Failure can be the greatest motivator and teacher -- especially for someone who never has experienced it before.

"I think it taught me a lot," she said.

"She blocked it out and used it as motivation at the same time," said Paul Yetter, her coach at North Baltimore Swim Club. "She was there, she knows it's there, she's got that inside her. But she can use that."

For one thing, Hoff has used that experience to get better at conquering her prerace anxiety. Every swimmer gets nervous, especially at big meets, but there is a difference between using that nervous energy to swim fast and submitting to the tension and swimming tight.

"I've learned to cope with the nerves," she said. "I still get nervous. I just handle it better and hide it better now."

Said Bowman, who was the coach at North Baltimore before he moved to Club Wolverine in Ann Arbor, Mich.: "She's so much more relaxed, not uptight. She's so much better at handling the pressure."

Now that she's gotten a handle on that, the rest of her game has progressed to new heights. The four years since Athens have been a return to excellence and a diversity that has made her the phemale Phelps.

She's almost as dominant at 19 as Phelps was at the same age in 2004. And Yetter said it's quite possible her next four years, climaxing in 2012, will be even better.

But there's no point in getting ahead, given her performances here. As of Thursday, Hoff is the world-record holder in the 400 IM, has the second-fastest time ever in the 200 IM, third-fastest in the 200 and 400 freestyles, and is in the top 10 in the 800 free. (She stands an excellent chance of moving further up that 800 list when she swims it in the Friday preliminaries and the Saturday final.) Add relays, and she's headed for a massive medal haul next month.

Hoff's competition is stiffer than Phelps', so don't expect her to win as many golds in Beijing. But don't count her out of any race.

She was at her most impressive and competitive here Wednesday night, winning both the 200 freestyle and 200 IM against stellar fields within 45 minutes. In both, she set new American records. In the latter, she took the record away from runner-up Natalie Coughlin, spotting her a big lead in the first 100 meters, then roaring back to win in the final meters.

"She's a stud for doing the 200 free/200 IM double," Coughlin said. "It's an incredibly tough double. I don't know of another female swimmer who could do it so successfully."

She'll attempt the same double again in Beijing, with a bit more rest in between events. Instead of 45 minutes, she'll have 1 hour and 28 minutes -- a fact she knew off the top of her head.

Whatever the time frame, Yetter doesn't see it as a problem.

"She doesn't need a lot of rest between events," he said. "She knows she can handle it."

If Hoff handles everything in Beijing -- the exhausting attempt to swim multiple races, the competition, the nerves -- she could be America's newest golden girl.

Then she could put the 2004 Olympic trauma behind her forever.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.