When Katie Hoff was 7 years old, she'd beg her parents to let her sleep in her swimsuit.
"I declared to everyone who'd listen that I'd make an Olympic team and set a world record," she remembered. "From age 7, my passion showed through, though sometimes in crazy ways."
Though at the time her bold proclamations mostly earned indulgent smiles, a mere eight years later, she'd done both. The former Olympic swimmer and world-record holder stopped by Westminster College on Friday to share how she pursued and reached her dreams through "relentless spirit." The event also served as a kick-off for a year-long celebration of 40 years of women at Westminster College.
"It's an honor to speak on the subject," Hoff said. "The women who fought their way into this school 40 years ago embodied it. And I wouldn't be standing here without my relentless spirit."
Though she confessed it's a bit cliche, Hoff sees two concepts as central to her success: having passion and having a defined goal.
"Sometimes passion can be confused with 'I like it,' and a goal with 'it'd be nice if this happened,'" Hoff said. "It can't just be a like. It has to be a need, something all-consuming, as important as eating and sleeping."
That's what swimming was for Hoff, who was forced to retire from the sport in 2014 due to a pulmonary embolism. Her passion and goals kept her going even after over-exertion during the 2004 Summer Olympics qualifying rounds led her to vomit after leaving the pool.
"I left those games feeling like I'd let my coach, my family and country down," she said. "But no matter where life takes you, up or down, your relentless spirit will carry you through if you have those two things."
Hoff refused to give up, pinning a picture of a rival swimmer to her wall for motivation on those mornings when she had to train at 5 a.m. and swimming extreme distances to get over her fear of the 400-meter medley. She went on to earn a silver and two bronze medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics, along with gold medals at the World Aquatic Championships.
Following the pulmonary embolism that forced her from the sport she loved, Hoff said there were "lots of tears."
"It was like my career was being decided for me," she said.
Today, she works in the wellness industry and regularly travels to give talks on her experiences. She's also recently started teaching swimming clinics, Hoff added. But she's on the lookout for her next passion.
"Passion can only happen — it's not something you can force," she said. "The hardest part is finding what that thing is — that's what I'm struggling with now. But if you can find that thing, it'll shape your way to success."