By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, April 23, 2020
At the height of her swimming career, Katie Hoff Anderson never really embraced the “Female Phelps” label placed upon her even though she understood why she received it.
She and Michael both grew up in Baltimore. They both swam for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC). They both swam a variety – and large number – of events at the National and international levels.
In many conversations, they were both heralded as the most complete, best swimmers in the world.
“It was an honor to be compared to Michael, but with that comes a lot of expectations – both internal and external – that are hard to live up to,” she said.
So, when Anderson qualified for five individual (and one relay) events at 2008 Olympic Trials, the comparisons amplified even more.
She and Phelps, who also qualified for 5 individual events as well as three relays in Beijing, would rule China together – bringing home multiple gold medals, world records and domination back to the states.
“When that didn’t happen, people started to doubt me, and I started to doubt myself a bit,” she said from self-quarantine in rural Michigan, where she is temporarily staying with husband, Todd. “In my mind, I wasn’t believing it. The comparison framed my Games in a very negative way because even though I won bronze in the 400 IM (just off my best time previously the WR), won silver in the 400 freestyle and broke the American Record in the 200 freestyle, it wasn’t good enough.
“I didn’t win 5 or six gold medals and dominate. It was a lot to live up to, and it really kept me from enjoying the Olympics, my events and swimming.”
Because of her pre-Olympics pedigree, it was understandable that expectations for Anderson were sky-high in Beijing.
At 2005 World Championships, she won three gold medals and two years later again at Worlds, she won three more in the same events (200 and 400 IM, 800 freestyle relay).
In between those two meets and years, she brought home five medals (three gold, two silver) at 2006 Pan Pacific Championships – so she had proven time and time again that she shone brightest at the biggest meets.
But it was just too much to handle in China.
“The expectations for gold medals kept mounting as the meet went on, even after I broke the American record (200 freestyle) but didn’t win a medal (on day 2),” she said. “I had a feeling of panic by the time I swam the 800 free. At that point, I was emotionally and physically done.
“Looking back now, I can be proud of what I accomplished. The negativity affected the way I looked my performance in Beijing for years.”
Following those Games, Anderson searched for that next coach, team, school, you name it, that could help her rediscover not only her love for the sport but also continued success in the pool.
After earning a spot on the 2011 World Championship team – wining gold as a member of the 800 free relay team – she said she felt strong and eager for Olympic Trials the following year and was very optimistic about her chances of making a third Olympic team.
“I had moved to Naples, Fla., to train with T2 Aquatics, and I had been training and swimming really well, so I was really optimistic,” she said. “But I got a stomach bug the day before the meet and never fully recovered. I didn’t make it out of prelims in any of my events, and that was very disappointing.”
Anderson went a full year into late 2013 before she competed again, needing some time to reflect on her life and what was still important and what she still wanted.
By the following April, she said she felt like she was back and ready to contend for a spot on the 2016 Olympic Team.
And then a health scare eventually caused her to re-examine the importance of swimming in her life. By the end of 2015, she was forced to retire and her bid for a third Olympics was over.
“A week and a half before (Phillips 66 USA Swimming) National Championships (in 2014), I had a soreness in my calf; when I landed in Irvine, there was a tightness in my chest," she said. "Two days later, I swam the prelims of the 100 free and the spasms after that in my rib area were so painful that I passed out.”
Anderson withdrew from the rest of the meet, and flew back home. She saw her doctor and was initially diagnosed with pneumonia, asthma and several other ailments, but she knew something was still wrong.
“No one did a blood test at any of those early appointments, and when things still weren’t improving, I went back to the doctor and demanded one be done to find out what was wrong,” she said. “The doctor did a CAT scan and found two blood clots in my lungs, and that’s when I realized I had some choices to make with my future in swimming.
“I was still thinking, ‘I’ve got to handle these clots and get back in the pool’ because Trials were the following spring. I was put on blood thinners so my body would absorb the clots, but there were still moments when I would get extra breathless, and I couldn’t keep swimming.”
By the fall of 2015, Anderson said she knew she needed to make a decision, and since she still wasn’t able to swim at the levels she wanted and needed to, she decided to retire.
That same year, she married longtime sweetheart (and former Michigan State football player) Todd Anderson, and she’s been living a new kind of dream ever since.
“It took some time for me to transition from Katie the swimmer to Katie the non-swimmer,” she said. “It really does become part of who you are and how you see yourself in the context of the world, so when you no longer have that in your life, there’s a bit of a mourning period before you’re ready to move forward.
“I was able to partner with Xarelto to do a year-long national campaign, commercial and media tour to bring awareness around Pulmonary Embolism which was the silver lining to all of it.”
Since retiring, Anderson has done many swim clinics, corporate talks and other speaking engagements – focusing on the lessons she learned and the importance of persevering and not giving up no matter what obstacles life puts in front of you.
It was after a Tedx Talk in April 2019 that she started thinking about putting her thoughts, memories and experiences down on paper for a memoir, and with the help of a ghost writer, she now has a complete manuscript that is ready to be shopped around for publishing.
She said the process of putting the book together has been cathartic and has forced her to examine a few things in her swimming life that she wasn’t prepared to confront following retirement.
“I had thought about writing one (before then), but it was after that talk that I really started thinking about it seriously,” she said. “I always wanted to frame whatever I wrote in a positive light, and I wasn’t in the right mindset after retiring because I was still struggling with how my career ended. I felt robbed. I needed that separation to gain perspective.
“Now, I’m really excited about the positive message in the book, and I’ve had a chance to really examine how much I accomplished and how proud I am of everything I did – not focusing on what I wasn’t able to do.”
Anderson said she has a working title, is currently gathering photos from her career to include in the final print and is excited for her memoir to be available for everyone to read.
“Whether I’m giving a corporate talk or working with a group of young swimmers at a clinic, I want to inspire people, and I really feel like this book will inspire people,” she said.
“In my swimming, working toward 2016 Trials, I really felt like I was close to getting a happy ending to my career. That didn’t happen, but the book and other opportunities allow me to use my experiences to make a positive impact on others and inspire and help them to accomplish something extraordinary."