The Many Seasons of Katie Hoff

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By Annie Grevers, Swimming World Staff Writer

At the Olympics in 2004, a knot of nerves twisted in 15-year-old Katie Hoff’s stomach. The anxious teen cramped up after the first 250 of her 400 IM. She completed the race then pulled herself from the water dry-heaving before spewing the unsettled nerves that had been wanting out of her stomach.

“I was so unhealthily nervous,” Hoff said. “Before Olympic Trials, I had been oblivious to the pressures of the sport and had not cared about what other people thought.”

Making the Olympic team had not even been in her purview six months before Trials. After the Olympics, Hoff saw and read the media buzz, writing her off as a failure. She had bounced back from a constricted 400 IM to make the Olympic final in the 200 IM, but the resonating message Hoff was left with was, We expected more from you.

“After Athens, I was determined to not just be a splash-in-the-pan teen,” Hoff said. “I was hyper-aware of how others perceived me. My identity became tangled in how I swam.”

Success Undermined By the Media

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Hoff’s mentality drove her to win the 2005 World Championship title in the 200 I.M. (2:10.41) and prove she was just starting to catch fire in the water.

“Everything in between 2004 and 2008 was a fairytale,” Hoff said. “I was gaining momentum. Every time I raced, I was breaking American records.”

At 2008 Olympic Trials, Hoff won five events: the 200 IM, 400 IM, 200 free, 400 free, and 800 free. All of a sudden the media was comparing her to the greatest swimmer of all time, calling Hoff “the female Michael Phelps.”

To that Hoff said, “What the heck? I didn’t have a world record in every event like him, and I was by no means a favorite to win eight gold medals!”

In Beijing, Hoff took silver in the 400 free, bronze in the 400 IM, bronze in the 4×200 free relay, fourth in the 200 free (in a new American record), fourth in the 200 IM, and did not final in the 800 free. The 19-year-old won three Olympic medals and the headlines asked, “What happened to Hoff?”

“It took me two years to realize I did, in fact, have a successful meet,” Hoff said.

In 2009, Hoff missed making the World Championship team. She felt like she had burrowed herself in a hole while training and could not climb out. She thought about quitting.

But the burning competitor in her would not allow it. After her bad swims, Hoff reminded herself: No, that’s not you. You never want to leave the sport having it beat you.

Hoff laughs at her analogy as the sport being the bad guy. Swimming is not the bad guy. Swimming is the vehicle her competitive spirit uses to reveal the best within her. She was never ready to leave the sport when she knew the best in her had not yet been roused.

Leaving The Book Open

2015-mesa-andy-kershaw

In 2012, Hoff trained hard. She trained well. She did not make the team. It was time to re-evaluate.

“Why am I doing this?” she thought. Hoff’s teammates know her for her reactive tendencies. It’s easy to “get her goat,” as the expression goes. After 2012, her reactiveness wanted her to retire.

“I remember Brendan Hansen saying ‘I did not want to close the book, then look back in 10 years and regret it,’ so I did not file any paperwork (to officially retire),” Hoff said.

She walked away from the book, but her swim story’s conclusion had yet to be written.

Hoff moved to Miami in January of 2013. Her priority was school, and occasionally the pool beckoned. But it was not until August of 2013 when she traveled with USA’s Junior National Team to Jr. Worlds in Dubai that she surrendered to the strong tug she felt from the water.

“Their excitement for the sport was infectious,” Hoff said. “Any questions I had before the trip were answered. They solidified my decision.”

Hoff knew Miami University coach Andy Kershaw from Team USA trips. The timing was perfect. She met with Kershaw and put her intentions on the table.

“What if I decide to tap out after six months, or even two months?” Hoff asked Kershaw. She did not want him to invest in her without the disclaimer that this was a trial run.

“Then I will have helped you found closure in the sport,” Kershaw answered.

His words were precisely what Hoff needed to hear. There was no push in them, only support. Exactly what Hoff was seeking as she sought to train not to meet the expectations of others, but just for the love of the water. It was the first time she had wanted to swim for fun in nearly a decade.

Hoff’s comeback meet was the Mesa Arena Pro Series in April 2014. According to Hoff, the first couple of meets were rough. But by the end of the summer, she had gained confidence and had rallied race excitement for Nationals in Irvine, California.

Career Clotted

Photo Courtesy: Peter H.Bick

Photo Courtesy: Peter H.Bick

After prelims of the 100 free at Nationals, Hoff felt a stabbing pain in her ribs.

“I couldn’t inhale deeply,” she said. “Any exertion would cause my body to shut down from oxygen deprivation.”

Hoff withdrew from the meet, and second-guessed her comeback.

“Is this a message from above?” she wondered. “No, you’re so close to reaping what you sow!” the angel on her shoulder responded to her reactionary feelings.

The preliminary diagnosis was a strained intercostal. Then doctors thought it could be asthma or maybe pneumonia. Her breathlessness became more of an issue as time went on. She was anxious to have a certain diagnosis, so she could stop feeling like a wimp as she panted her way through practice.

It was not until October that Hoff went in for a CT scan and the doctors found two blood clots in her lungs. Her robust swimmer lungs had allowed Hoff to train with the undetected blood clots.

Hoff was put on blood thinners to help the two clots dissolve. In December, her doctor did an ultrasound and two masses still appeared, but what remained was scar tissue from the blood clots.

The seasoned swimmer is now doing respiratory therapy, which she describes as an exhausting supplement to her swimming.

Keeping Her Eye on Her ‘Why’

katie-hoff-todd-anderson

Photo Courtesy: Todd Anderson

August 2014 through January 2015 was a rough duration to get through emotionally and physically.

“I told Andy I was going to retire three different times during those months,” Hoff laughed.

It wasn’t until the Orlando Arena Pro Series when Hoff was feeling healthy and taking full breaths again. Even after a what she thought was a lackluster meet, the Mesa ProSeries in April, Hoff still has a solid cluster of reasons to stay in the sport.

Her “why” in swimming now is to swim because she chooses to swim. Because she’s having fun with swimming in the first time in a long while. Because she knows she has a loving fiance and a life ahead of her when she hangs up the goggles. She is not living for swimming, she is swimming because it enriches her life.

“I still have my days that I struggle,” Hoff said. “But I always take a deep breath and remind myself of my ‘why.’ I’ve had a lot of those moments, but I always have an answer.”

The support Hoff feels from fiance Todd Anderson is plain “awesome.” Anderson was a starting fullback for Michigan State and made the St. Louis Rams’ pre-season squad. He’s been an elite-level athlete and “picked up on swimming lingo quickly.”

Can Todd swim?

“He can hold his own for about 10 yards,” Hoff said. “He’s like a tornado beside me.”

Anderson is a manager at their local Equinox gym, where he runs Hoff’s strength program.

“He has become a student of swimming and swim-specific movements,” Hoff said. She has caught him watching swimming videos on YouTube to more meticulously sculpt Hoff’s lifting regimen.

katie-hoff-lifting

Photo Courtesy: Todd Anderson

Hoff talked about the odd juxtaposition of swimming. We are chasing the happy, contented feeling of clenching a best time, yet we drive ourselves to that through pain, anxiety-ridden situations which are very much the opposite of what we’re chasing. But as Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

Going into her fourth Olympic Trials, Hoff has a veteran’s approach. She expects the nerves, and she knows the ambience in Omaha well. Next summer, Hoff plans on walking onto the pool deck in Omaha with the support of her husband (they get married this August), knowing she is prepared to swim fast and prepared to enjoy the experience.

The 25-year-old has a broader world view and no longer entwines her identity with her swimming performances.

“Whatever will be will be,” Hoff said with resolve.

To read more stories of perseverance, stay tuned for the June issue of Swimming World Magazine! Subscribe here!

1 Comment

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Dunc1952

    Thanks, Annie. I just hope Katie understands that though it was in no way her obligation or duty to do so, she brought joy over the years to people who watched her swim.

Author: Annie Grevers

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Annie (Chandler) Grevers is a staff writer for Swimming World. She swam for the University of Arizona, winning the 100 yard breaststroke at the NCAA DI Championships as a senior in 2010. She was also a member of six NCAA Championship relays during her college career as well as a member of Arizona’s NCAA Championship title in 2008. She represented the United States at the Pan Pacific Games in 2010 and at the Pan American Games in 2011, where she won the 100 breaststroke. She is married to Matt Grevers and resides in Tucson, Arizona.

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