By John Lohn
BEIJING, China, August 9. THE first of two showdowns between American Katie Hoff and Australian Stephanie Rice is shaping up to be stellar, unless Elizabeth Beisel can be a party spoiler. As qualifying opened in the 400 individual medley, Hoff qualified second for the championship final with Rice sharing the No. 3 slot. Meanwhile, it was Beisel, the surging American star, who grabbed the top seed.
Beisel, second to Hoff at the U.S. Trials, turned in a prelim showing of 4:34.55, slightly quicker than the 4:34.63 of Hoff. Rice, who held the world record until Hoff shot it down at the American Trials, shared the third spot at 4:35.11 with Italy's Alessia Fillipi. Hoff's world record sits at 4:31.12 with Rice's best a 4:31.46.
Hoff is embracing the most difficult schedule among any woman at the Games, with her program featuring five individual events. In addition to racing the 400 IM, she'll tackle the shorter medley along with the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles. Hoff also figures to anchor the United States in the 800 freestyle relay.
The key to the race will be the field's ability to keep pace with Hoff on the breaststroke leg, where she has established herself in recent years and a stroke she uses to pull away handily. Rice, of anyone, might be the best suited to knock off Hoff. Her breaststroke leg during the prelim session was solid and allowed her to pull away from Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry.
Qualifying in the fifth spot was Russia's Yana Martynova (4:36.25) and China's Li Xuanxu was sixth in 4:35.55. Coventry, who will race both backstrokes and medley events at the Games, hung on for seventh into the final in 4:36.43. She was followed in seventh by Great Britain's Hannah Miley, who was timed in 4:36.56.