USOC honors Hoff as '05's best

April 06, 2006|By KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG | KEVIN VAN VALKENBURG,SUN REPORTER

Not that long ago, people were calling Towson teenager Katie Hoff the future of swimming in the United States. Not anymore. The title of future prodigy no longer fits. After spending the past year collecting records and medals at a furious pace, Hoff has suddenly become a star in the present tense, not the future one.

Yesterday, the U.S. Olympic Committee confirmed just how far she's come, naming the 16-year-old SportsWoman of the Year for 2005.

Hoff is the eighth swimmer to receive the prestigious honor, which has been handed out every year since 1974, but she's the first swimmer to win since Jenny Thompson in 1999. Previous winners include Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith Joyner, Bonnie Blair, Janet Evans and Picabo Street.

"Receiving this award is such an honor, and I can honestly say it's definitely a shock," Hoff said in a statement. "I never thought I would get it this year because of all the amazing performances from the other athletes nominated.

"This was a big year for me because I didn't accomplish all of my goals in 2004 at the Olympics. That was the biggest motivation for me to do well, and that's how I approached swimming last year."

Hoff -- who was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team in Athens in 2004 -- hit her stride in 2005, winning three gold medals at the world championships in Montreal. She won the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys in dominant fashion and swam a key leg on the U.S. team's gold medal-winning 800 freestyle relay team.

She set an American record in the 200 IM and won the 400 IM and 800 freestyle relay in world championship-record time.

Shortly after the worlds, Hoff, who like Olympian Michael Phelps is a product of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, decided to turn professional and signed a 10-year endorsement contract with Speedo.

"There's probably nobody out there who is as versatile as Katie is right now," said Murray Stephens, who co-founded the NBAC in 1968. "She's similar to Michael in that she can swim all four strokes quite well. ... I think in picking this award, the USOC is looking for athletes who are model personalities, who acquit themselves well outside their sport, and Katie is perfect example of that."

Stephens said Hoff, who trains under the direction of coach Paul Yetter, is also beginning to serve as an inspiration for other swimmers at NBAC, including several up-and-coming athletes who could burst onto the national scene soon.

The NBAC just won the Speedo Spring National Championship Meet, primarily on the strength of its women's team, marking the first time the club has won the combined men's and women's title in its history.

"She's really become a leader in her training group," Stephens said. "She gets along well with everyone."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

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