Commentary

Trying to be like Mike has been Hoff's Olympic downfall

Updated: August 15, 2008, 1:07 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BEIJING -- Katie Hoff needs a new plan. No more Phelpsing it.

Four years younger than the greatest swimmer of all, Michael Phelps, she's spent much of her life following in his giant footsteps. Both are from the Baltimore area and trained with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Both were prodigies, setting national age-group records as youngsters. Both made their first Olympics at age 15 and their second at 19. Both plotted incredibly ambitious programs for these Beijing Games.

And that's where the similarities stop -- something Hoff and her coaches might now understand. She is not Michael Phelps. Nobody is Michael Phelps. Nobody has the combination of physical gifts and mental strength Phelps possesses.

It's a lesson learned the hard way.

"I'm not supposed to be Phelps," she said.

Then she should quit trying to be.

Hoff attempted the Phemale Phelps program at these Olympic Games: five individual events and a relay. The results won't put her on a cereal box anytime soon.

Hoff was expected to pull in six medals, which would have been the most ever for a female swimmer. A couple of them were predicted to be gold. She had a chance to be the women's star of the Water Cube.

Instead, she earned three medals -- one silver and two bronze. In a lightning-fast pool that has produced records left and right, Hoff swam slower than her lifetime bests in four of her five individual events. She went a tenth of a second faster in the 200-meter freestyle.

She was a high-profile disappointment.

That might be considered a harsh judgment of a 19-year-old Olympian, but let's get something straight:

Hoff is a professional athlete, not a puppy. Her 10-year endorsement deal with Speedo is the longest in swimming. She's also sponsored by Visa, Omega and Rosetta Stone. In America, pro athletes are celebrated when they win and panned when they underachieve.

Hoff underachieved.

The capper was the 800-meter freestyle Thursday night. She came in seeded third. She finished 11th, missing the eight-woman finals and swimming eight seconds off her best. The comeuppance was so jarring that she didn't speak to the media until the next day.

[+] EnlargeKatie Hoff
Vladimir Rys/Getty ImagesKatie Hoff leaves Beijing with a silver and two bronze medals, but no golds.

Hoff was not alone in butchering that race. Kate Ziegler, the second-fastest American woman in the 800 and the top seed in the prelims, also flamed out and missed the finals. Ziegler also failed to make the finals of the 400 free, finishing 14th after being seeded fourth.

Ziegler probably was the biggest disappointment on the U.S. team. But Hoff is on the podium.

She chalked it up to an overly ambitious program, saying that performing it at the U.S. trials in late June and early July and then repeating it here was too much. Her body couldn't handle the physical demands, and her mind couldn't handle the mental stress.

"The schedule was definitely a lot harder than I thought it would be to do it twice," Hoff said. "… Just to tackle 12 swims again [counting prelims and semifinals] was very challenging.

"The mental energy, emotional energy and physical energy it takes to go out there every time … is incredible to me."

The American coaches were protective of Hoff in their comments, as coaches tend to be. Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach and the once-and-future head coach at NBAC, found the only silver lining available: "The last one was pretty much a complete disaster. So she's way ahead of the game there."

The last one was the 2004 Olympics, when Hoff cracked under the pressure, finishing 17th in the 400 IM and throwing up on the pool deck. She also finished seventh in the 200 IM.

This time, Hoff at least won her first Olympic medals, but she once again left her best swims at the Olympic trials. She needs to trim back her repertoire of events for the future, and she knows it.

"I'm going to be in this sport a long time," she said. "I want it to be fun. There are events I do that I don't really enjoy at all."

In addition to lessening her workload, Hoff needs to toughen herself mentally. If there is one distinct difference between her and Phelps, it's competitive mindset. Phelps is an expert in knowing how to race to win. Here, Hoff showed a lack of killer instinct.

She lost a sizeable lead in the 400 freestyle on the final 50, being caught at the wall and missing gold by .07 seconds. She also was passed in the final 50 in both the 200 IM and 200 free. And she flat capitulated in the final 100 of the 800 free, swimming it in a glacial 1:06.76.

"My body kind of shut down after 500," she said.

Hoff's Olympic struggles only underscore the astonishing consistency of effort and performance from Phelps. Bad swims in big meets? It just doesn't happen for this guy. Not ever, and especially not here and now.

The Phelps mindset is remarkably unbreakable. His ability to focus, to ignore any nagging voice of doubt in his head, to shrug off the mounting pressure -- it is a rare and beautiful trait.

Perhaps, in four more years, Katie Hoff will have acquired that trait. She'd be far better off mimicking Phelps' mentality instead of his event schedule.

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