When Katie Hoff was 10, she stunned a 14-year-old fellow swimmer who had just swum a national qualifying time by asking for his autograph. "Because you'll be the best," she explained to him. The 14-year-old scribbled MIKE PHELPS on a program and told her, "You too, someday."
At the world championships last week in Montreal, Hoff, now 16, lived up to that prediction by winning the first international medals of a career that some think could parallel Phelps's. She earned three gold medals to lead a breakthrough performance by young U.S. women, including Kate Ziegler, 17, who won the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyles, and Jessica Hardy, 18, who broke the world record in the 100 breaststroke.
In winning the 200-meter individual medley, Hoff was on world-record pace through three strokes before finishing in 2:10.41, .69 of a second off the mark set in 1997 by China's Yanyan Wu. Three days later Hoff swam a 1:58.50 second leg in the 4�200 freestyle relay, cutting more than a second off the Australians' lead and helping the U.S. rally to victory. To cap her week, she broke the meet record in the 400 IM on Sunday in 4:36.07.
The similarities between Hoff and Phelps run deep. Both were afraid of the water the first time they entered a pool. "I even washed Katie's hair as little as possible because she hated it so much," says her mother, Jeanne. Both swimmers are members of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC) and qualified for their first Olympics at age 15. Both are versatile IM'ers who can also specialize in other races.
Katie got her athletic genes from Jeanne, who holds career basketball records at Stanford for scoring average (17.6 points) and field goal percentage (.586), but Katie's competitive fire built slowly. At age seven she was primarily concerned with collecting each of the different colored ribbons awarded to first- through eighth-place finishers. After a close friend beat her one day, however, Hoff abandoned the chase for anything but blue winner's ribbons.
In 2003 Jeanne and John Hoff moved their family of four from Williamsburg, Va., to Baltimore so that Katie could train with NBAC. Paul Yetter, then an NBAC assistant and now her personal coach, recalls the way she looked him in the eye and then asked to meet the other swimmers. "She was amazingly confident," he says. "She belonged right away."
Hoff won both IM races at the Olympic trials last summer, becoming the youngest member of the U.S. delegation at the Athens Olympics. But overcome by nerves, she failed to qualify for the final of the 400 IM and threw up backstage after the race. She finished seventh in the 200 IM. "I had never felt pressure like that before," she says.
On Phelps's advice, Hoff left Athens before the Games ended and channeled her disappointment into fierce training. "Good swimmers all like to win," says Jack Bauerle, coach of the U.S. women's team in Montreal. "Great ones, like Michael, hate to lose."
If coaches doubted Hoff's willingness to take the lead for the next generation of U.S. women swimmers, Yetter saw a hint of it several months ago when he asked about a party she had hosted for teammates. "Ugh, I lost [at cards] all night," she told him. Yetter smiled and said, "I was only asking if you enjoyed the party."