Swimmer Hoff endures rough waters

A friend asked swimmer Katie Hoff recently about the possibility of seeing her medals from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and Hoff shocked everybody — OK, mostly herself — by saying yes.

There are three in all, a silver medal and two bronzes.

She looked tentatively at each medal, unsure of what emotion they might conjure.

“And for the first time, I was proud to show them,” Hoff said when we talked at a meet in Indianapolis. “It took me almost four years. I used to be, ‘Oh sorry, I didn’t win gold.’ ”

It is weird to think it has been four years, how much has changed and how little has. The swimming world was all about a teenage girl then just as it is now — how great she was, how many medals she would win, how fun swimming was when seen through her eyes.

2008: Hoff, 19.

2012: Missy Franklin, 17.

Franklin is just the latest next big thing, fresh and crazy talented, featured in Vogue and predicted to take London by storm. The same media who dubbed Hoff “Female Phelps” now have moved on to Missy “The Missile,” which is great unless it is you being written off as a has-been at 22.

Sports’ love of youth is hardly new. It is just particularly cruel in Olympic sports, where opportunity comes along every four years. I was talking about this phenomenon recently with Dana Vollmer, a darling of the 2004 Olympics who then failed to qualify in 2008.

“I definitely heard the Olympics were pretty hard for her. It was hard for me,” Vollmer said. “We went from making the team together in 2004, roomed together, and she really made it big right after that and went professional and signed these amazing contracts. I didn’t really get there yet, so watching her get all of that and me wanting to get that and then watching her struggle, too, with that amount of pressure and feeling I went through same thing.

“I feel like … ” Vollmer said, when up walked Franklin, literally, “… and here comes her.”

This is not said with malice. For starters, Vollmer is generously kind, and it is impossible not to like Franklin. She oozes exuberance, telling funny tales of prom dresses and history finals. What is also most certainly true is that Franklin has become a target, like Michael Phelps, like Hoff four years ago. Because with expectations come pressure.

“After the 400 IM, I got my best time in the Olympics and a bronze medal and fail,” Hoff said.

That is crazy, right?

Not really. NBC commentator Rowdy Gaines called her a disappointment, and he was hardly alone in being a judgmental ass. It is like Natalie Coughlin said at the USOC media summit: We forget how hard it is to win gold, any medal really, and how branding such a moment a failure is idiotic.

I asked Hoff: Was it fair to you? It was a dumb question. Of course, it wasn’t. Yet I asked anyway.

“I think it just got out of hand because I did win five events at trials,” Hoff said. “But you look at where I was ranked going into the Olympics. No. 1 in 400 IM, yes, that was one. But I wasn’t like Michael [Phelps], where I was right on world-record time in every single one of my races.”

She was and she wasn’t like Mike.

Media dubbed her “Female Phelps,” and not without reason. Both were from Baltimore. Both dominated trials. Both planned to swim aggressive programs in Beijing.

“I think being compared to Michael is really what did me in,” she said.

Did she ever call herself “Female Phelps”?

“For a long time, I cringed when you guys would say that, when I would read that and I would be like …” and, at this point, Hoff actually let out a sigh.

Hoff went into Beijing a rising star, readying for medals and more endorsements and history everybody assumed was coming her way. She returned at the start of a spiral, going down and down until hitting bottom in summer 2009.

“I went from making the Olympic team in five events to not even making the world championship team. I felt like a failure,” she said.

This was the worst, but not the end. She has spent four years going through ups and downs, only recently returning to train with her old coach and seeming to be gaining steam in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle and 400 individual medley events she plans to focus on at trials.

“I am so glad I kept chucking through,” Hoff said. “I had four years of doing well and, in that moment, you don’t learn very much about yourself. As much as losing and not doing well sucks, that’s how you learn.”

And what did she learn about herself?

“I am resilient,” she said. “I just didn’t want to let the sport beat me.

“I didn’t want to walk out and have to admit that I quit because it was too hard or there was too much pressure. I didn’t feel like that was me, and that is why I kept going and that is something I will be just as proud of as any race, or any medal.”

Whatever event she qualifies for at trials, whatever medals she wins in London, it will not take four years for her to appreciate them.

“Obviously, gold is the goal. But, you know, if it doesn’t happen, for the first time I am OK,” Hoff said. “This time, I am going to enjoy the moment. Look around. Remember, I am on the Olympic team. I am.”

She may no longer be the hot next thing. But age has advantages, too.