If the average person were to walk up to Katie Hoff tomorrow and explain in a calm and rational voice that, at age 16, after the year she has had, Hoff might have earned the right to call herself the best female swimmer in the world, her reaction would likely be something like this: nervous laughter, some significant eye rolling, plenty of blushing, then most importantly, denial, denial, denial.
The affable Hoff - who lives in Towson and trains at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club - doesn't do cocky, which is just fine, because her accomplishments do all the boasting necessary. After winning gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys at the FINA World Championships last summer, plus another as a member of the United States' 800 relay team, Hoff has been the toast of the swimming world. Last week, she was named SportsWoman of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee, the first time a swimmer has received that award since Jenny Thompson in 1999.
Hoff, however, isn't the only teenage star in training who spends her afternoons in a pool in Mount Washington, practicing her strokes and perfecting her craft. Though Hoff, who just signed a 10-year endorsement deal with Speedo, appears to be the most talented of the bunch, NBAC has a few other fresh faces that could be ready to burst onto the international scene in the next few years after their recent performance at the USA Swimming Spring Championships.
Though NBAC has produced 10 Olympians - including Michael Phelps, who won six gold medals and two bronze in Athens - since it was co-founded in 1968 by Murray Stephens, this was the first time the club has captured the combined men's and women's team national title. A dominant performance by the women's team, combined with a solid showing on the men's side, helped NBAC hold off the University of Southern California.
"It was really cool," said Hoff, who won national titles in the 100 freestyle, 400 freestyle, 200 IM and 400 IM. "Everyone swam really well, and I thought it was amazing how all our hard work over the past few months paid off. We'd never done that before, so it was a big thrill."
Hoff's performance was hardly a surprise, but it was the strong showing by some of her training partners that ended up turning a few heads. Sixteen-year-old Courtney Kalisz won the 200 butterfly (2:09.77), beating Hoff (2:10.67) by almost a full second, and 13-year-old Felicia Lee won the 100 butterfly (59.72), just missing a national record for her age group by one hundredth of a second. Michele King, 17, also finished fourth in the 50 freestyle and was a member of several strong relay teams.
"It's really neat to see them do well as individuals, but when you start adding up all the little things they contribute and you see what the group is accomplishing, that's pretty rewarding," said Paul Yetter, the senior elite coach at NBAC, who has worked with Hoff and Kalisz for several years. Yetter and his assistant coach, Scott Armstrong, can be found pretty much on a daily basis stalking the edge of the pool, coffee in hand, barking out encouragement.
Kalisz, a sophomore at Fallston, has been swimming at NBAC since she was 11 and dominating her age group well before that. She was among the youngest competitors at the U.S. Olympic trials in 2004 and finished 11th in the 200 butterfly. In 2005, she set a national age-group record in the 200 backstroke. Many predict she could be on the verge of a major leap this year, establishing herself as a serious contender for Beijing in 2008.
"I feel like I've really stepped up my training and gotten a lot more experience," said Kalisz, who has her own Web site as well as an interest in acting and modeling. "That's probably what's been responsible for why I've been doing so well lately. I feel like I've really tried to get everything out of it lately."
Lee is a relative newcomer to NBAC, having just moved here from Montclair, N.J., and it's fair to say she's a product of the recruiting bump Phelps gave NBAC after his performance in Athens.
"My old club wasn't really providing the right training for me," Lee said. "My mom decided to look around, and found this club, I think probably because of Michael Phelps. I think that showed my mom this club could provide excellence for a lot of years."
Lee's national title wasn't a complete surprise - she felt as though it was there for the taking prior to the race - but it was no less rewarding.
"It was really overwhelming," Lee said. "I guess I thought I had a good shot, but to get a national title was really crazy."
King, who lives in York, Pa., and just recently started traveling on a weekly basis to train at NBAC, has been dreaming about making a U.S. Olympic team for as long as she can remember.
She's qualified for the U.S. trials in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle, 200 IM and 100 breaststroke, and has shaved more than a few seconds off her times since she started training at NBAC.