Hoff passes up college eligibility, decides to turn professional at 16

Towson athlete calls chance to lay groundwork for 2008 Games too great

Swimming

September 14, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Katie Hoff's small world is about to get a lot bigger.

After her impressive performance at this year's FINA World Championships, Hoff, 16, of Towson, said yesterday that she has decided to turn professional and has signed with Octagon, the same sports marketing firm that represents swimmer Michael Phelps.

Hoff's decision wasn't unexpected, especially after she won gold medals in Montreal in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley this July, but according to her, it also wasn't easy.

By turning pro, Hoff forfeits her college eligibility, something she thought a lot about before deciding to give it up. Hoff's mother, Jeanne Ruark Hoff, was a star college basketball player at Stanford from 1980 to 1983, scoring 2,038 points during her career.

"I've heard how amazing the camaraderie of college swimming is, but I also felt like I experience a lot of that on the USA relay teams," said Hoff, who still plans to attend college eventually. "I felt like the opportunity to lay the groundwork for 2008 was just too great to pass up."

It's probably too early to say whether Hoff is going to be the next Phelps, as some within the swimming community have predicted, but her potential to reach that level of success - both in the pool and on Madison Avenue - clearly exists, and in the coming years, you can expect her profile to grow significantly.

"Katie's story is a little different than Michael's. It's more of a long-term story," said Hoff's agent, Peter Carlisle, Octagon's director of Olympic and action sports. "How many Olympics is she going to compete in? I think she wants to compete in five.

"Well, there is a very real possibility we could be looking at the most decorated Olympian of all time when she's done. It's presumptuous to say that, but watching that possibility unfold is a great story. And you'd be a fool not to look at Katie and see the really unique potential ..."

For the most part, Hoff has lived a relatively quiet life to this point, despite being the youngest U.S. Olympian to compete in Athens. She has been home-schooled, and when she's not swimming, she passes much of her time doing things that plenty of 16-year-old girls do. She loves watching DVDs, chatting online with friends and going to dances. But more and more media requests have begun to trickle in - all of which the Hoffs choose to deal with personally - and with potential endorsement deals looming, things are only going to get bigger.

"With everything that goes into being a world-class swimmer, you need help handling it in order to maintain your focus," Carlisle said. "Most of the deals that Michael Phelps had originated prior to him going Athens. All of it, the magazine covers and deals, are based on potential, because potential is attractive to marketers and media. Katie has that potential."

Hoff doesn't have any endorsement deals lined up , and said she's excited, but still getting used to the whole title of "professional athlete." She plans to take things slowly this coming year, focus mostly on school and swimming and listen to offers as they come her way. Already she has begun to focus on her next major meet, the Pan Pacific Championships, which take place in August 2006 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Along the way, however, she wouldn't mind experiencing a little bit of Hollywood if the opportunity arises. Hoff told Carlisle it's her dream to one day attend ESPN's award show, the ESPYs, an event where athletes and celebrities mingle and mix. Carlisle's response: You'll not only go, you'll win an ESPY someday.

"I've just always watched that stuff on TV, all the actors and singers, and it's always seemed really cool to me," Hoff said. "You look at someone like Serena Williams, and see what she's doing, and it just shows you what sports can do, and where it can take you."

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