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Coach With Local Ties To Manage Talent And Egos

By Amy Shipley
Ariana Kukors, shown here after breaking the 200-meter individual medley world record last month in Rome, will be one of the biggest stars in Sean Hutchison's new training group in Fullerton, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)

Ariana Kukors, shown here after breaking the 200-meter medley world record last month, will be joined by Towson's Katie Hoff in Sean Hutchison's new training group in Fullerton, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)

Centennial High graduate Sean Hutchison figures he is walking into an exciting, worthwhile and, perhaps, above all, complicated challenge. Hutchison won’t merely be leading a new U.S. Olympic Committee training center for swimmers in September, he will be entrusted with managing the egos and psyches of a small group of the sport’s biggest stars.

By accepting three-time Olympic medal winner Katie Hoff, 20, into the new Fullerton (Calif.)-based training group along with world champion Ariana Kukors, 20, Hutchison bears the responsibility of helping Hoff regain her stature as one of the world’s best swimmers, while trying to ensure that Hoff’s presence does not interrupt the rise of his long-time student Kukors.

Kukors broke Hoff’s world championship record in the 200-meter individual medley this summer in Rome before surpassing the world record set last year by Australian Stephanie Rice.

Hoff failed to qualify for the world championships this summer. Prior to this summer’s slump, however, Hoff had dominated in Kukors’s specialty events.

The pair will train side-by-side with backstroker Margaret Hoelzer, a three-time Olympic medal winner and Olympic bronze medalist Caroline Burckle at Fullerton Aquatic Swim Team (FAST).  This week, the USOC designated FAST one of three elite training centers in swimming, along with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and SwimMAC in Charlotte.

“I’ve already talked to both of them about it,” Hutchison said. “They’re both really excited about training with each other. That’s a great first step.”

History has shown that putting superstar athletes in similar events in the same pool to be a dicey proposition; Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson attempted to share a pool under the late Richard Quick before the 2000 Summer Games but eventually split because of dissension.

Hutchison, however, believes the arrangement can work to benefit both Kukors and Hoff, who have competed against one another for years — as long as, Hutchison said, he ensures that daily training sessions highlight the strengths of both.

“Whenever you have great athletes [together] it’s always a balancing act,” Hutchison said. “It’s just keeping that mind[set] where you don’t run them into the ground … To be blunt, I think if you lose all the time in practice, you are probably going to lose in the meets. That balancing act is something you always have to keep in mind.”

It’s unclear whether the pair will compete directly. Tired of the medley events she had dominated, Hoff swam only freestyle this summer. Hutchison said Hoff shouldn’t compete in events for which she had lost her enthusiasm, but added that, “before the suit revolution, she was by far the best 400 IMer in the world.”

When Hutchison, who attended the UMBC, decided to leave the Seattle-based Key Aquatics for Fullerton, Kukors did not hesitate to go with him. She was, after all, coming off of a breakout season a year after barely failing to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

The decision was much more difficult for Hoff, who has trained for the last six years at NBAC under former coach Paul Yetter and, for the last year, Michael Phelps’s coach Bob Bowman.

Hoff never seemed comfortable in Bowman’s group. She never adjusted to the heavy weight training, and also hated working in near-isolation. Bowman’s training group included only one other high-profile female athlete, Haley McGregory, and McGregory left after just a few months.

Hoff said Wednesday she was drawn to Fullerton in large part because of the chance to train with qualified female peers. Hutchison said he hoped his club would eventually attract male athletes, but noted that there had been few training opportunities for post-graduate women, and he was happy to fill that void.

“I definitely would like to have a bunch of guys also, but there are worse things than to have a team of the best women in the world,” Hutchison said.

Hutchison said among the first things he would do to help Hoff get back on track would be to discuss big-picture goals that couldn’t be measured with a stopwatch. Hutchison recalled that Phelps had been quoted saying at a young age that his primary goal was to change the sport.

“The first goal is for her to come up with goals outside of times, giving her meaning … instead of just trying to go faster, “ Hutchison said. “Those are the kinds of things I’m excited about talking to Katie about. She has the potential and qualities to push the sport forward.”

Hutchison said he’s heard from many other athletes interested in training in Fullerton and expects more to join once he kicks off workouts in September. Hutchison said he accepted the offer to lead the start-up team from USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert because he has long believed USA Swimming needs to step away from a reliance on college coaches burdened with NCAA responsibilities to coach its top athletes. Hutchison said he took a pay cut to take over at FAST.

“When this opportunity came along, I felt like it was time to either push this thing forward,” Hutchison said, “or shut up.”

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