February 19, 2008

Swimming with the 'big guys'

Towson’s Felicia Lee is 15, the same age as teammate Katie Hoff when she made the Olympic swimming team that went to Athens in 2004.

Lee is starting to show her chops, finishing three of her four events at the Missouri Grand Prix in the top 10, including a third-place showing in the 200-meter butterfly against two veteran athletes.

As she stood in the blocks last weekend, she said she was aware that setting up to her left were Mary Descenza, 23, and Kim Vandenberg, 24, who finished the 200 butterfly one and two, respectively. Descenza, the silver medalist at nationals, is only the second women to win the event in four consecutive years of the NCAA championships. Vandenberg, won the 2004 national title and finished second in the event at worlds last year.

That didn’t bother Lee, who came to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in late 2005 from Wayne, N.J.

“Age doesn’t really matter. It’s just get out there and do what you have to do,” Lee says. “I really wanted to work on my turns and build my last 50 because that’s where I have my trouble.”

She led the race, but faded in the end as the two veterans glided past her.

In some ways, she reminds swimming fans of a young Hoff, who had the physical tools first and then polished her act with maturity, experience and a tough mental approach.

“I still have a lot to work on,” Lee acknowledges. “I have to be a little more confident about it. I’m confident enough that I know my ability but, being with the big guys out there, I look up to them a lot. It’s like, ‘Whoa, I’m swimming against them.’

Given her northern New Jersey background, it’s no surprise that the bubbly teenager considers herself a shopaholic mall rat, who is always looking for something sharp to wear. She enjoys photography and drawing, and English is her favorite subject in school.

Paul Yetter, who coaches both Hoff and Lee, says he doesn’t compare Hoff four years ago to Lee today.

“But there are similarities. They are both improving in an Olympic year. They both believe anything can happen. Both know what being an underdog is, Katie in 2004 and Felicia in 2008,” Yetter said.

Lee swam preliminaries in the 50-meter and 200-meter freestyle events Saturday night, barely missing the cut for finals field of weight. Then, she finished fifth in the 100-meter butterfly preliminaries (59.46), making her the youngest finalist by two years. In the finals, she placed fifth (1:00.05). In the 200 IM, she took sixth (2:17.05).

“The 100 fly is one of my best events right now, and 200 IM, I’m trying to get there, too,” she said.

The coach says there are a number of veteran swimmers in the 200 fly, “and she’s still learning this race. She wants to beat everybody, which is tough to do at this point in her life.”

Lee would love to duplicate Hoff’s accomplishments of four years ago by making the Olympic team and going to Beijing in August.

“It’s hard. There’s a lot of competition out there," Lee said. "Going to trials, I just want to do my best, get a good swim in. If I don’t make the team, I mean, there’s always the next four years.”

“And then,” says Yetter, as if turning the calendar pages, “there’s eight years and there’s 12 years.”

February 18, 2008

Missouri Grand Prix results

Katie Hoff

100-meter freestyle: 1st, 54.28
200-meter freestyle: 1st, 1:56.08
400-meter freestyle: 1st, 4:02.20
800-meter freestyle:1st, 8:27.32
200-meter IM: 2nd, 2:10.23
400-meter IM: 1st, 4:34.53

Michael Phelps

200-meter freestyle: 1st, 1:45.71
100-meter backstroke: 2nd, 53.70
100-meter breaststroke: 6th, 1:02.57
100-meter butterfly: 1st, 51.52
200-meter butterfly: 1st, 1:53.31
400-meter IM: 1st, 4:14.08

Odds and ends from Columbia

Wrapping things up from the pool today in Missouri...

It wasn't a bad meet for 18-year-old Dan Madwed, who swims at North Baltimore Aquatic Club and lives in Towson with his grandparents. At the Grand Prix, Madwed finished fourth in the 200 meter butterfly (1:57.75), seventh in the 200 meter freestyle (1:50.30) and fifth in the 200 IM (2:04.46).

Madwed is originally from Stamford, Conn., but moved to Charm City to work with Paul Yetter, NBAC's head coach. His paternal grandparents, Sid and Miriam, moved with him into an apartment while his parents stayed behind in Connecticut.

"I knew that's where I had to be if I wanted to get better," Madwed said. "Paul got me to the next level. He's so energetic. I love going to practice because he's almost more excited than you are. He's up and down the pool all the time while we're training. It's not like he's sitting there reading a newspaper. He makes you motivated."

Madwed is one of the youngest swimmers on the men's side with an outside shot at making the U.S. Olympic team this year, and next year he'll head to Michigan to swim for Michael Phelps' coach Bob Bowman.

"I'm just trying to swim good times," Madwed said. "This will be my second trials. The first one, I was just a wide-eyed kid, looking around and seeing all my heroes. Now that I've competed a little internationally, I'm a little better."

Madwed's best shot to make the team will be in the 200 fly, where he's currently ranked third among Americans and 23rd in the world.

"I'm crossing my fingers," Madwed said.


One of the last major races of the meet, the men's 1,500 meter freestyle, turned out to be one of the most exciting thanks to Erik Vendt, Phelps' training partner at Club Wolverine. The 27-year-old Vendt, who won a silver medal in the 400 IM in Athens, went on a blistering pace, hoping to threaten Larsen Jensen's American record of 14.45.29.

What made it exciting, aside from Vendt's powerful swim, was that nearly every prominent coach and prominent swimmer was on his or her feet, clapping their hands, whistling and cheering, urging Vendt to push himself through the pain and to the finish line. Phelps was standing on the pool deck waving his arms, barking out encouragement, and when Vendt touched the finish line -- falling just short of Jensen's mark at 14:47.58 -- Phelps sprinted over to the blocks to congratulate his friend.

"Erik has dominated our workouts the last few years," Phelps said. "I can't hang with him. He's amazing. I just run out of gas."

Vendt, who is probably Phelps' closest friend on the U.S. Olympic team, actually retired from swimming for nearly two years after the 2004 games and didn't see himself returning, at least not like this. But the time away clearly recharged his batteries. In the last six months, Bowman said Vendt has dropped nearly 10 seconds off his 1,500 meter time, and that his time today was probably "one of the top two or three in the world this year."

"I really missed the sport," Vendt said of his time away. "After 2004, I was just hanging by a thread. I was so burnt out. But after two years off, I feel like a kid again. I'm not swimming to keep my scholarship or swimming for any reason other than I love it. It's a good feeling."

Vendt and Phelps are an interesting yin and yang as training partners. Vendt is a voracious reader, a student of history, an outdoors enthusiast and a political junkie. He and Bowman traded friendly barbs during the build-up to the New Hampshire primary, with Bowman supporting John McCain and Vendt supporting Ron Paul.

"Ron Paul is my guy," said Vendt, who describes himself as a libertarian ideologically. "It's really frustrating the way the mainstream media just ignored him and acted like he was a fringe candidate without doing any research at all. I think he's really what the country needs. ... I'm definitely not a fan of the huge tentacle-like arms of the federal government invading everything in our lives."

Vendt said he's almost been able to convince Phelps to join the Paul Revolution.

"Michael is a big online poker guy, and that's one of Paul's issues, legalizing online gambling," Vendt said.

Vendt says he could see himself possibly getting involved in politics someday.

"People joke around and talk about running for office, and I say 'OK, if you do, I'll run your campaign," Vendt said. "But it's definitely something I'm interested in."


Ian Crocker said he didn't really mind losing to Phelps that much in the 100 butterfly (Crocker went 52.00 to Phelps' 51.52), even though it's an event Crocker still holds the world record in (50.40). He really feels good about his training, and he expects to go fast this year in Beijing. He just needs to figure out the right strategy for the race. He's tried several, and he and Phelps' duels have become almost like a chess match in the pool each time they face off.

"It was about the best race I could have put together with where I'm at in my training," Crocker said. "I know that I have to be ahead in the second half because he's so good at crunch time. I have to have that speed in the front."

Crocker will once again be one of the biggest road blocks in Phelps' quest to capture eight gold medals, a challenge that he enjoys, despite the fact that most casual swim fans want to see Phelps achieve greatness. Crocker is one of the most laid-back and genuine athletes in the entire country. Yesterday, when a group of kids were poolside begging for autographs, Crocker happily agreed to sign a few swim caps only to have one kid -- possibly a Phelps fan? -- yank his cap away.

"He was like 'No, I don't want you to sign it!' and I was like, um, ok," Crocker said, cracking a big smile.

February 17, 2008

Coughlin gets unexpected world record in preliminaries

During the last 50 meters of the 100m backstroke this evening, Natalie Coughlin was dreaming of barbeque.

It had been a long day, and all she wanted to do was finish with a decent swim, get some pulled pork (from the Columbia restaurant Bandana's B-B-Q) and a good night's sleep.

Because she had already decided she wasn't going to swim in Monday's final, she wasn't even going to warm down. Mentally, she was already somewhere else.

"I was like barbeque and no warm down, barbeque and no warm down," Coughlin said. "It was a strange race. I really don't know what to say about it."

When she touched the wall and looked at the scoreboard, she thought it was a mistake.


A world record.

In the preliminaries.

The Mizzou Aquatic Center couldn't believe it either. Katie Hoff jumped out of her seat. Michael Phelps' jaw dropped. Coaches were double checking their sheets, trying to figure out what had just happened. Coughlin's initial 50 split wasn't even that fast for her standards: 28.77. When she went 54.44 in Melbourne at the World Championships to set the previous mark, she swam the first 50 in 28.30.

"I had zero emotion going into that race," Coughlin said. "I was like 'It's prelims. I hope I go under 1:01.' I just wanted to have a solid swim in the backstroke before I go home. I haven't even done any backstroke since November, and that was short course. I just don't know."

While Coughlin couldn't stop shaking her head, Mark Schubert, the head coach of the U.S. National Team, couldn't stop smiling.

"I've watched Natalie for a lot of years and I've never seen her so surprised," Schubert said. "I talked to her afterward and she said 'I was looking at the scoreboard and I thought it was wrong. I thought it was a mistake.' She just built the race. She was out four-tenths slower than her world record split, so maybe she learned a little something about how to swim it."

Just earlier in the day, Coughlin said she really didn't even care about her times this early in the season. She just wanted to slowly build in preparation for U.S. Trials in July.

"I've set personal bests in the prelims before, but never in my strongest stroke," Coughlin said. "Just in events that I swim like once every few years. So that was highly unusual."

So was she saving her best swim for her last event of the meet?

"Not purposely," Coughlin said. "It must have been the barbeque. ... There is going to be lots of barbeque tonight. I'm going to go overboard."

Hoff grabs another American swimming record

Swimming against the American record holder in the 200-meter freestyle, Katie Hoff claimed the mark for her own at the Missouri Grand Prix.

Her time of 1 minute, 56.08 seconds topped the time set last year by Natalie Coughlin, who could only watch from the lane to Hoff's right as the Towson swimmer recovered from a poor start and began her assault. Hoff had a half-length on Coughlin at the first turn and made it almost a full length by the end of the race.

Afterward, Hoff swam over and gave Coughlin a hug.

Yesterday at the Mizzou Aquatic Center, Hoff set an American record in the 400-meter freestyle and won the 100-meter freestyle.

In making the 200 freestyle mark her own, Hoff is now the third-fastest swimmer in the event. Laure Manaudou of France set the world record 1:55.52 a year ago at the FINA World Championships. At the same event, Germany's Annika Liebs posted the second-fastest time, 1:55.68.

Later today, Hoff will compete in the final of the 400-meter IM.

Another day at the office

Katie Hoff punched the clock and settled into her office last night to qualify for two more finals at the Missouri Grand Prix.

After winning the 100-meter freestyle and breaking a 19-year-old record on the way to a stunning win in the 400-meter freestyle, Hoff set the pace again in the 200-meter freestyle and 400-meter IM.

The announcer ran out of platitudes long before Hoff ran out of energy.

In the 200, she blasted off the blocks and quickly settled into a smooth rhythm, opening a lead on the other swimmers, four to her left, three to her right. She finished her two laps at 1:57.57, just a blink off her personal best. Natalie Coughlin, the American record holder, swam in the last heat and clocked a 1:59.04.

Clearly the crowd at the Mizzou Aquatic Center expected more great things from Towson’s Hoff as she lined up for her preliminary in the 400 IM, an event in which she holds the world record.

Halfway through the race, with Hoff below her world pace, fans began chanting, “Go-Go-Go” to match her backstroke.

Hoff eased off a bit to win her heat at 4:32.89, about four seconds off her world mark.

Just another day at the office.

She’ll punch in again today for the finals in both events and compete in the preliminaries for the 200-meter IM and 800 freestyle.

February 16, 2008

Coventry makes history

Katie Hoff breaking Janet Evans' 19-year-old American record in the 400-meter freestyle this morning was great news for the U.S. Swim team, but it had some competition for the best swim of the morning.

Zimbabwe's Kristy Coventry managed to snag the first world record of the meet, winning the 200-meter backstroke with a blistering time of 2:06.62, breaking the old mark held by Kriztina Egerszegi of Hungary, which had stood since 1991.

Coventry, the gold medal winner in the 200 backstroke in Athens, was still in shock when she tried to put it in perspective.

"I heard the announcer say that it was a world record before I could see my time, and I was like, 'Oh my god!'" said Coventry, who swam collegiately at Auburn University. "I just started jumping up and down. I talked to my coach on the phone and she was crying. It's been a goal of mine for a long time, so it's good to get it."

Coventry was somewhat surprised, considering this was the first time she's swam in an event that featured finals in the morning.

"I'm usually not a very happy person in the morning," Coventry said. "But I'm definitely getting better."

Phelps: I think this proves the wrist is fine

Michael Phelps didn't set a world record this morning in the 200-meter butterfly and, when he was finished, the crowd at the Mizzou Aquatics Center seemed a little disappointed.

This was strange, considering he had just swam the second-fastest time ever.

Phelps, who did break a world record here in the 200 fly last year, finished his race in 1:53.31. It wasn't quite as fast as he was in Melbourne when he went 1:52.09, a race that drew comparisons to Bob Beamon's record long jump in Mexico City and Tiger Woods 12-stroke victory at the Masters. But when you consider the fact that this was his first long course event since breaking a small bone in his wrist in the fall, well, it was pretty darn good.

"With everything I've been through this year, I'm really happy with my time," Phelps said. "I wanted to swim faster than I did here last year, and I did that. I just try to improve on every race that I did from last year. If I'm faster than I was before, then I feel good."

Phelps said he doesn't feel any affect, at all, from his wrist injury.

"Not one bit," he said.

Katie Hoff, sprinter?

The news rippled around the arena this morning and left people shaking their heads and questioning whether they'd heard it just right.

Hold on, Katie Hoff won the 100 meter freestyle? And beat Natalie Coughlin, who won bronze in that event in Athens, in the process?

Yup. You read that right.

Hoff, wearing her new Speedo LZR Racer swim suit, clipped Coughlin at the finish line with a time of 54.28 to win the 100 meter freestyle, which was something of a surprise. Hoff, the world record holder in the 400 IM, has exactly been an elite sprinter and doesn't even normally swim the 100 freestyle. But her freestyle stroke continues to get better and better, as evidenced by the fact that she finished fourth at the FINA World Championships in the 400 meter freestyle and in the preliminaries here she was just a second off Janet Evans' American record in that event last night.

Coughlin said afterward she wasn't worried about her time or who she was swimming against, but Hoff's victory in the 100 meter freestyle will certainly raise some eyebrows elsewhere. Her coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club is still trying to figure out what exactly her program will be for the Olympic trials in July, and this will certainly give him -- and the rest of the swimming world -- something to think about.

Suits them just fine

The Emperor, he of the faux clothes of fairy tale fame, should have had one of these babies.

Officially, it’s the Speedo Fastskin LZR Racer, the Ferrari of swimsuits, made of secret materials found only in laboratories and on elite racers. It doesn’t wrinkle, bag or chafe.

Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff are among a handful of swimmers this weekend sporting them at a meet that is part of the Grand Prix series.

The one-piece suits are supposed to reduce drag in the water by as much as 10 percent and increase oxygen intake. Phelps and Hoff love them. Competitors must wonder why either athlete needs a turbocharger.

Make no mistake, these are not the one-piece suits your Aunt Ethel wore Downy Ocean, hon.

Imagine a body encased in very expensive plastic wrap. Ultra-thin plastic wrap. Leave-nothing-to-the imagination plastic wrap.

Material so thin, so painted-on, that Hoff admitted she ripped two suits as she wiggled into them. At $290 to $550 a piece, that’s not like putting a run in a pair of panty hose.

“You have to be very meticulous,” she counseled.

Not that everyone is going to rush out to buy one. What can potentially make one faster also shows off a multitude of sins. (Think: human bratwurst). Aunt Ethels of the world, beware.

Besides, as Hoff points out, the suits are so skin tight that they’re not good for lounging around. And, she notes, many versions cover up all but hands and feet -- not exactly what you’d wear for catching rays.

But if you’re hoping for a regal look during a trip this summer to, say, Beijing, this is the suit for you.

February 15, 2008

Grand Prix preview, Hoff video

In today's Sun, Kevin Van Valkenburg previews the Missouri Grand Prix, the first long-course meet for Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff since the USA Swimming National Championships in Indianapolis in August.

Also, watch video of Candus Thomson's interview with Hoff looking ahead to the event  (Videography by Rick Maese).

About this blog
Sun reporters Kevin Van Valkenburg and Rick Maese will blog from Beijing throughout the Summer Olympics. Kevin and Rick will blog back and forth with each other as a way of letting readers in on the sights, sounds and the action in Beijing.

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