Hoff, a shoo-in for 2008, now an old pool pro

WASHINGTON -- Katie Hoff wasn't thinking about competing in the Olympics a year before the 2004 Games in Athens. Hers was more of a three-month plan.

At 15, Hoff was as surprised as anyone else when she qualified for those Games. She didn't study too much about Athens before her trip. Heck, she had never even been on an international flight.

But with the 2008 Olympics in Beijing just under a year away, Hoff, now 18, has made a concerted effort to change her approach. This past April, she spent about a week in China hanging out with fellow swimmers Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Megan Jendrick and doing the typical sightseeing ventures -- checking out the Forbidden City, visiting the Great Wall and sampling jellyfish. She even touched the Water Cube, Beijing's Olympic swimming venue.

Hoff went to China as sort of a pit stop on the way home from the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. She was there as part of the Visa Friendship Lanes Tour, which included swim clinics and meeting with Special Olympics athletes. The tour turned out to be as informational for her as it was for the young kids. They even taught her how to write some Chinese characters.

Now that she's visited as a tourist, the Forbidden City won't be so foreboding a year from now.

Should she qualify for the U.S. Olympic team next year (she's considered pretty much a shoo-in since she is a world-record holder and one of the most promising American swimmers, but there are no certainties in swimming), Hoff can focus all of her energy in the pool. The outside distractions she struggled with in Athens shouldn't be a problem in Beijing.

Her flight to Beijing in 2008 will be a business trip.

"It will all be swimming, which is all I want," Hoff said.

Hoff is far from the swimmer she was three years ago. She's proved she's a serious competitor, having claimed three gold medals at the World Championships this year. This past week at the U.S. Championships in Indianapolis, Hoff racked up three national titles, and she didn't even enter one of her best events, the 400-meter individual relay.

She used the national championships as a litmus test for the Olympic trials and the upcoming Games, entering the 800 free and the 200 back to see which event she might add to her already hefty list of races for next season. She won the 200 back and she even gave Kate Ziegler a swim for the money in one of Ziegler's best events, the 800 free.

Hoff, who was in Washington's National Capital YMCA last Monday as part an initiative to improve swimming facilities for underprivileged children, said she has not decided whether she will focus on the 800 free or the 200 back. Scheduling conflicts would prevent her from attempting both next year.

"I wanted to see which one was better," Hoff said. "It's going to be so hard. I'm probably leaning toward the 800 free."

Olympic gold medalist Summer Sanders, who was with Hoff on Monday, said she spent the year leading up to the 1992 Games in Barcelona visualizing her races before she went to sleep each night. She also told Hoff that she used a mellow mix of music at night to help calm her emotions.

Sanders likened the year-out anniversary to the Games to a 10-year-old child being a week away from Christmas.

"Now it's real," Sanders said. "Now you see the light."

Hoff is seeing the light, so to speak, a year out from Beijing, but it is from the sun's rays. Hoff planned to spend the past week on a well-deserved vacation with a friend in the Bahamas. She had no plans of swimming at all while she was there. The closest she planned to getting in the water was dipping her toes in the ocean while relaxing at the beach. Her main goal was to finish the last Harry Potter book. (She was about halfway through and don't you dare tell her how it ends.)

She knows when she returns home to suburban Baltimore, she will get more than her fill of swimming. And she knows she will have about a year to prepare for her ultimate test.

"[Being in Beijing] gave me a great advantage," Hoff said. "Now I know what to expect."

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.