Pelton Bursts on the Scene, Following Hoff's Trajectory

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS, July 7 -- This story has played out before, a 15-year-old youngster soaring out of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, all optimism and talent and potential. Elizabeth Pelton, the youngest swimmer entered in the 200-meter individual medley at the national championships, flew into that joyous role with her surprising second-place finish, clinching a spot on her first world championship team.

Towson's Katie Hoff, now 20, was once that 15-year-old sensation from NBAC.

Tuesday night, however, she could not have been further away from that glorious place.

About 40 minutes after Pelton realized her dream faster than just about anyone expected, Hoff swam an almost incomprehensibly dismal race. Eleven months after a disappointing Olympic Games, Hoff -- once labeled "the Female Michael Phelps" -- sank, perhaps officially, into a slump: She did not make the team in an event she has dominated.

She finished sixth in 4 minutes 12.34 seconds, more than 10 seconds slower than her personal best, more than five seconds behind first-place finisher Allison Schmitt (4:06.77) and nearly two seconds slower than she swam in the morning's heats.

"It happens to everybody," said her coach, Bob Bowman. "Katie hasn't had a meet like this ever. She will learn from it and move on."

Distraught after the performance, Hoff declined to talk to reporters.

Adding an additional slap to an already painful day: Julia Smit, 21, the Stanford swimmer who topped Pelton (2:09.34 to 2:11.03) did this, too: She broke Hoff's U.S. record (2:09.71) in the event.

That didn't stifle Pelton's celebration one bit. Leading after the butterfly and backstroke legs, Pelton lost ground during the breaststroke but hung on despite a fierce race over the final 50 meters.

She didn't know she had earned a spot in Rome until she peered at her coach at NBAC, Paul Yetter, in the stands with the more than dozen other NBAC swimmers competing here. They were all jumping up and down, she recalled, and screaming.

"I was pretty surprised," Pelton said. "I always knew, in the back of my head, I had a chance. But in the last 25 meters I was like, 'Wow, this could happen.' "

Happen it did. Pelton topped Ariana Kukors, 20, who was fifth in the 400 IM at the 2007 world championships and finished in 2:11.07. She also beat North Dakotan sensation Dagny Knutson, 17, who overshadowed Pelton at last year's world junior championships in Guam but finished fourth in 2:11.11; as well as the highly regarded Elizabeth Beisel, 16, who came home in 2:11.80. It didn't hurt that neither Hoff nor Olympic star Natalie Coughlan is competing in the event this year.

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