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Originally published Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Margaret Hoelzer wins silver in backstroke

Margaret Hoelzer, who trains at the King Aquatic Club near Seattle, won silver in the 200-meter backstroke at the Beijing Olympics.

Seattle Times staff columnist

BEIJING — She lost the race to her longtime friend and former teammate. Lost her world record as well.

Margaret Hoelzer dramatically pulled herself through the last 50 meters like she has in so many big races for so many years, but she wasn't fast enough to catch Kirsty Coventry in the 200-meter backstroke final.

Hoelzer won silver Saturday morning and, unlike so many scenes we've already witnessed at these Olympics, she didn't break down in tears at the thought of second place. She didn't walk through the mixed zone with a towel over her head, a sign to reporters to stay away.

She smiled and celebrated and understood the immensity of her accomplishment.

Hoelzer has won a bronze (100 backstroke) and silver (200 backstroke) at these Games.

"I knew I was in the race at the turn, but I knew that this could happen," Hoelzer said, after finishing in 2:06.25, behind Coventry's world-record 2:05.24. "I never really race for a medal. I usually just race for my personal best, so I'm just racing myself in a lot of ways. And I'm really happy with silver."

This sport can be grinding. The competition, the expectations can chew you up before you're old enough to drive. All the joy that got you into the pool in the beginning can be replaced by a sense of dread, a gnawing doubt about where all of this is taking you.

From their preteens, elite swimmers are asked to sacrifice so much.

"Eat, sleep, swim. That's what we do," says Michael Phelps, who won his seventh gold medal [100 butterfly] in one of the most thrilling races in the Olympics.

Early morning trainings. High-tech diets. Innovative practice methods designed to shave split-seconds off the fastest times.

Hoelzer calls the difficult times in her career "plateaus" And she's known a few. She has climbed the wall and she has hit the wall. She has been happier than a beachcomber sometimes and more stressed than an air-traffic controller others.

"Absolutely, it gets to be a grind sometimes," Hoelzer said. "I've had a couple of plateaus in my life. I think everyone goes through them if they're in the sport long enough."

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In April she felt as if she were heading toward another plateau. She knew she needed a change, which is a radical thought so close to July's Olympic trials.

She made a conscious decision to dump all the stress and enjoy the ride. As Hoelzer, 25, approaches the long final laps of her life in the pool, she is choosing to enjoy the swim.

"I think some of it, for me, is just getting a little bit older," she said. "When you get more mature, your priorities kind of become a little more apparent and you realize that there is more to life than just swimming.

"I joke around sometimes and tell people I don't know if I'm really maturing, or going in the opposite direction. Sometimes I feel like I'm turning back into an 8-year-old. I think you have to feel that way. When you've been into the sport a long time like I have, you're going to have peaks and valleys. Everyone has plateaus. Everyone loves the sport one minute, then hates it the next."

In April, she moved from Charlotte, N.C., to Seattle, into the guest room of a distant cousin, Charles Chestnut. And she began training at King Aquatic Club in Federal Way.

"I think she went through a period when, I wouldn't say she was bored, but she just had a lull," her sister Martha said. "Now she's rediscovered her passion for it. She's really gotten back into loving it again."

The results are obvious. In Omaha she set a world record in the 200 backstroke at the trials, breaking the record that Coventry reclaimed Saturday. Now, she is a two-time medalist here.

"I got into a little bit of a mental rut and with some new training ideas and a few stroke changes, Sean was able to bring that 8-year-old out in me again," Hoelzer said of King Aquatic coach Sean Hutchison. "He helped me start enjoying it again.

"I'm probably at a point where I'm not going to be doing this a lot longer. And I want to enjoy what I have left of it. When I get to that point — not yet — I want to go out on a good note. I think it's just prioritizing."

Hoelzer will continue competing. She still loves the pool and, as she gets older, the joy of racing becomes clearer to her.

Steve Kelley: skelley@seattletimes.com. ReadhisblogfromChinaatwww.seattletimes.com/Olympics.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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