Back after Olympic debut, Hoff makes splash at school

On High Schools

October 03, 2004|By MILTON KENT

AH, THE IN-SCHOOL assembly. It's as much a part of the school tradition as the smelly locker, the mushy peas at lunch and learning the "Hora" dance during gym class.

Katie Hoff has been there for those assemblies, but always on the other side, the kid looking longingly at the person giving the talk. That is, until Friday, when the 15-year-old swimmer was the person on the rostrum, imparting the wisdom.

It was, to be sure, an odd feeling.

"Yeah, I remember going to these things. They'd have a speaker, and I thought, I really want to be like them," Hoff said after speaking to a group of kindergarteners, first- and second-graders at Boys' Latin.

"It was really weird. This was only my second or third time speaking. I was really nervous, especially with younger kids. It's kind of tough, because they just want to tell their stories."

Indeed, what were supposed to be questions about Hoff's life in and out of the pool became precious statements about the time one child dived off a springboard for the first time or the time another boy got to swim against a pal.

But some of the queries were right on point: "What's it like swimming in the water?" "Are you scared with all the people watching you?" "How long did it take you to get there," namely Athens for the Olympics.

Beyond Hoff's presence, the Olympic theme was huge for the kids, who were celebrating their own "Laker Olympics," an annual activity where the boys from the lower school, which goes from kindergarten through fifth grade, adopt countries, create flags to represent those nations, then stage their own opening ceremonies -- complete with national anthems -- before competing in events.

The boys paid rapt attention to the collection of photos Hoff brought back from the Athens Olympics in August, particularly zeroing in on the shot of Michael Phelps, the new icon of Baltimore sports. It was almost as if the students, who were quiet and attentive, conferred some level of cool to Hoff because she was standing next to Phelps in the photo.

"I think he [Phelps] deserves all the attention he gets," Hoff said. "He worked his butt off to get to this point, and it's not like I get asked about him a lot."

Hoff's mom, Jeanne, told the story that before the family moved here from Williamsburg, Va., a then-10-year-old Katie had gone to a meet at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, where the then-14-year-old Phelps trained, looking for his autograph.

Hoff, who swam the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys at the Olympics, was invited by a Boys' Latin coach to speak to the boys, in one of the few moments she has had back here since being away for the Olympics.

While in Athens, Hoff, the youngest of the more than 500 members in the U.S. Olympic delegation, got a not-so-savory taste of the big time. After winning her way onto the U.S. team with a time of 4 minutes, 37.67 seconds in the 400 IM at the trials, the fastest time in the world to that point this year, Hoff finished fifth in her heat, swimming 4:47:49.

Hoff finished seventh in the 200 IM, in 2:13:97, about a second off her time in the trials. Those disappointments serve as fuel for her attempt to make the U.S. team for the 2008 Games in Beijing.

"I'll be older [in 2008], and I think I'll be better than I was in Athens," Hoff told the students.

Tomorrow, Hoff will be on her way to Indianapolis for next week's world championships.

This will be only the second international meet Hoff has competed in -- the Olympics being the first -- and she is looking forward to racing in a "short course," a 25-meter pool, rather than the 50-meter pool she swam in in Athens. Then, it will be back into training before the next big qualifying meet in April for the 2005 world championships in Montreal.

"It's hectic, but this is what you have to do if you want to win," Hoff said.

Sounds like the kind of lesson you learn at school assemblies.

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