Hoff shows growth at championships

She earns 3rd gold medal by setting meet record in 400-meter IM win


August 01, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL - Early on at the FINA World Championships, Katie Hoff's coach, Paul Yetter fielded a question that made him stop and ponder for a moment. Did he think that Hoff - listed in the media guide at 5 feet 9 - had grown a few inches in the past year?

"I think she may have grown a bit," Yetter said after some careful thought, "but I think she might be standing a bit taller, too."

Regardless of whether it was a growth spurt or whether it was simply Hoff's newly discovered swagger, when she wasn't in the pool yesterday, Hoff was definitely walking tall. The 16-year-old from Towson won her third gold medal of the world championships last night, dominating the 400-meter individual medley, setting a championship record with a time of 4 minutes, 36.07 seconds.

It was also one more tiny slice of redemption for Hoff. She had the year's fastest time in the 400-meter IM coming into the Olympics in Athens, but failed to make the final because of a bad morning swim. Yesterday, Hoff kept pace with the pack during the backstroke and the butterfly, then grabbed the lead at the 250-meter mark with the breaststroke. From that point, she pulled away during the freestyle to finish 3.65 seconds ahead of runner-up Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe. American Kaitlin Sandeno finished third.

"I wasn't even thinking about winning or championship records or any of that," Hoff said. "That kind of stuff really gets me nervous. I was really just trying [to] swim with renewed confidence in this event because it's been a little shaky. I was aiming to get a best time, and I did it, so I'm really excited for that."

The final day of the championships wasn't a bad day yesterday for Rodgers Forge's Michael Phelps, either. Even though he didn't swim in the final of the men's 400-meter individual medley, he won his fifth gold medal of the week (because he swam in the semifinal in the morning) when the U.S. team easily won the event last night. Phelps now has 10 gold medals for his career at the world championships.

Hoff - who also won a gold medal in the 200-meter individual medley and one from the 800 freestyle relay - hasn't quite had the breakout performance that Phelps did at the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, Spain (when Phelps won four gold medals and set three world records), but it's still been plenty impressive. And plenty of people have taken note of the fact that when the Beijing Olympics roll around in 2008, she will be the same age (19) that Phelps was when he won eight medals in Athens.

"I think Katie has really gained confidence in herself," said U.S. women's coach Jack Bauerle. "She's really a different swimmer out here."

Hoff's performance, coupled with excellent showings by teenagers Kate Ziegler, 17 (gold medals in the 800-meter freestyle and 1,500-meter freestyle) and Jessica Hardy, 19 (world record in semifinals of the 100 meter breaststroke), have the U.S. coaching staff thrilled with its future prospects. Coming into the championships, there was some question about how good the American women would be, with Amanda Beard choosing to skip the event and Natalie Coughlin clearly not at her top form.

"We're really encouraged," Bauerle said. "It's a young team, but it has some young stars. They're only going to get better, too. I think it was a coming out party for a few of them, we were looking for a few people to step forward, and they did that."

Said Hoff: "I definitely think the women's team stepped up more than everyone thought they would, and hopefully that's going to carry over to Beijing."

Hoff, who was the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team in Athens, had certainly earned the respect and admiration of her teammates with her enthusiasm and energy.

"She's so innocent and so naive, but she's just so high on life and I think that's so refreshing," Sandeno said. "She's definitely a role model for other swimmers. Because of her youth, a lot of younger girls look up to her. They think, `She's 16 and look how fantastic she does. She handles the stress and the pressure really well.' I'm just so proud of her. She's just fantastic."

Hoff doesn't seem to mind being labeled as the next U.S. women's swimming prodigy, but said she already longs for the day when she's a veteran.

"I can't wait to be like the oldest one here," Hoff said, unable to hold back a giggle. "I'm sick of being picked on. It's all in good fun though. It's like I have a bunch of older brothers and sisters."

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