World class acts

They are both 17, from suburban Baltimore and athletic champions, but Katie Hoff and Kimmie Meissner -- who will be half a world away this week competing toward Olympic glory -- are otherwise quite different

March 18, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg and Candus Thomson | Kevin Van Valkenburg and Candus Thomson,Sun reporters

At 17, Katie Hoff and Kimmie Meissner are already Olympic veterans, each making her mark by bending water to her will.

Hoff, of Towson, cuts an imposing figure as the fastest swimmer in the world in the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley. Meissner, of Bel Air, glides on the surface as the reigning world and national figure skating champion.

This week the teens are half a world away from home, trying to burnish their international credentials with an eye toward the next Olympics. If they can defend their respective world titles - Hoff in Melbourne, Australia; Meissner in Tokyo - they'll be one step closer to becoming the female faces of their sports.

In some ways, Meissner is already there, and she hopes that this week helps solidify the picture.

On the cover of the U.S. Figure Skating media guide for the 16-member World team, Meissner is the focal point, standing where stars like Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen once stood.

"It's really different to see my picture in the middle. It's a big responsibility," says Meissner, who signed endorsement deals with Under Armour, Subway and Visa after winning the U.S. title. "I'll do the best I can."

Hoff too, has, in many ways, already arrived. In 2005, she was named female athlete of the year by USA Swimming, and signed a 10-year endorsement deal with Speedo, the longest contract the swimsuit maker has given.

It's an honor, but Hoff still isn't always comfortable with some of the attention swimming has earned her.

"I know there are more expectations put on me now," Hoff says. "But I have a lot more experience, too. I really try not to think about what other swimmers are doing, or what people expect from me. I've learned that it's about only way I can keep myself sane."

Both have put in countless hours at practice, in the pool and on the ice, and nursed sore muscles afterward, hoping the hard work would pay off someday. Both of their families have sacrificed to further their careers.

Though the Meissners live in Bel Air, her parents drive her to the Ice Skating Science Development Center at the University of Delaware five times a week to train.

The Hoffs originally lived in Williamsburg, Va., but moved to Abingdon, and eventually to Towson to be closer to North Baltimore Aquatic Club where she trains.

"They never put any pressure on me, because they already knew I was putting enough pressure on myself," Hoff says. "For them to relocate our family to better my swimming career is really amazing."

Common threads

International fame, however, the kind that could land them on magazine covers and could earn them even more in endorsement deals, may be right around the corner.

Meissner will have to wait three years for her big shot at the Winter Games in Vancouver, but Hoff's crack at the top of the Olympic podium comes next year in Beijing.

It would be quite the accomplishment for two girls, born just four months apart, who also lived in Harford County - though Hoff only briefly.

The two teenagers have never met, but each admits they've admired from afar what the other has accomplished.

Despite being immersed in entirely different worlds, their ascension onto the Olympic stage has common threads. Hoff and Meissner each tried ballet before settling on their current sports, and both came from athletic families.

Meissner's father and brothers are hockey players, and Hoff's mother, Jeanne, was a star basketball player at Stanford University from 1980-83. In Athens and in Turin, Hoff and Meissner, respectively, were the youngest members of the entire U.S. Olympic teams.

Hoff considers herself a hip-hop devotee, and though she loves artists like The Fray, Fall Out Boy and Fergie, it's not unusual to hear Ludacris coming out of her headphones in between races. She loves to dance and log onto in her spare time.

Home-schooled by her mother, she can occasionally be spotted zipping around Towson in a blue Audi A3 that she bought with money she earned by winning events at the U.S. Open championships in 2005.

Traveling to Australia, she says, has been a lifelong dream.

"It's really nice here, but it's just so big," Hoff says, calling from Melbourne. "I'm looking forward to seeing a lot and experiencing more when I'm done swimming."

Meissner, whose taste in music ranges from the Beatles to the Killers, squeezes in classes at Fallston High School and wears a charm bracelet with charms from all the places she has traveled to while competing. Although she has taken a high-speed spin with a NASCAR driver at the Dover International Speedway, she says she's still struggling with the nuances of driving.

Different approaches

The two athletes have taken different approaches in the weeks leading up to the world championships.

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