-- Long after Katie Hoff had emerged from the pool Wednesday evening at Long Beach Aquatic Center, she was still squealing, beaming, smiling uncontrollably, like -- well, like a little girl. And then she said it, without a trace of sarcasm, that this -- making the Olympic swimming team -- was something she had been dreaming of since she was "very little."
So it is, at the ripe old age of 15, that Hoff, of Abingdon, Md., burst on to the Olympic team, joining her more renowned Baltimore-based training partner, Michael Phelps. While Phelps's world record-setting performance in the men's 400-meter individual medley was the talk of the first day of the Olympic trials -- and a bold statement in his quest for perhaps seven Olympic gold medals -- Hoff's swim in the women's version of the event had its own charms, not the least of which was her reaction.
"I'm just, like," Hoff said moments after her victory, not inclined to avoid the parlance of teenagers. "I don't even think I'm going to comprehend it till tonight."
For someone who celebrated her 15th birthday just 34 days earlier -- and someone who lists shopping and hanging out with friends as her primary avocations -- this was a lot to comprehend.
Yet prior to the trials, Hoff's credentials were legitimate. Not only does she occasionally train with Phelps at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, she had shaved 11 seconds off her personal best since joining the club last August. She won the national title in the 400 IM in February, and held the second-best time in the world this year.
But to make the Olympic team -- a status that becomes likely by finishing second at the trials, but is only ensured with a victory -- Hoff had to overcome what, in swimming, amount to the old war horses in her event: 23-year-old Mandy Crippin and 21-year-old Kaitlin Sandeno, veterans of the 2000 Olympic team.
Hoff's performance in the morning preliminaries -- in which she was a distant sixth, well behind Sandeno, but safely in the eight-woman final -- seemed to indicate that experience might win out. The crowd, the cameras, the stakes. At 15, that's a lot with which to deal.
"I have a problem with going out way too fast," Hoff said. "And unfortunately, that problem is very painful sometimes." Painful enough that she can peter out. So that was the thought in between sessions: Ignore the youthful exuberance and show the patience of a veteran.
"I don't feel like I needed to say too much," said Hoff's 28-year-old coach, Paul Yetter. "I just told her to relax. There wasn't much doubt in my mind that she could get better." And she did. At the midway point of the final, Sandeno's lead was some 2.5 seconds. But that was just fine.
"Tonight, I tried to really chill out on the first hundred," Hoff said, "and then play it cool for the first 200." However it's expressed, it was solid strategy. When the medley -- which features all four disciplines -- turned to the third leg, the breaststroke, Hoff closed the gap. By the time the swimmers made the turn for the final 100 meters, Hoff was in the lead for good, her Olympic position secure. Her time of 4 minutes 37.67 seconds was just more than a tenth of a second off Summer Sanders's American record, set when Hoff was 3. Hoff popped up from under the water, turned to look at the giant electronic scoreboard -- and yelped. "I'm just amazed," she said.
Phelps and Hoff weren't the only athletes to hear those rising cheers that accompany a record-setting swim. Klete Keller set a U.S. record in the men's 400-meter freestyle, dominating the field -- Phelps-style -- in 3:44.19, nearly 2.4 seconds better than runner-up Larsen Jensen. Like Hoff, Keller had his issues between the prelims and the final: nerves.
"I was more nervous than I've ever been before any race," he said. At 6 feet 6, with a back seemingly broad enough to display a double feature, the 22-year-old from Ann Arbor, Mich., didn't swim tentatively. Last year, Phelps broke Keller's record in the event.
Thursday's events will feature Jenny Thompson, the sentimental favorite of the trials. At 31, Thompson has done everything in swimming -- except win an individual gold medal at the Olympics. Wednesday, she qualified for the final in the 100-meter butterfly, and will try to make her fourth Olympics in the final Thursday. Ed Moses, of Burke, who shares the American record in the 100-meter breaststroke, will try to hold off co-record holder Brendan Hansen in the final of that event. Hansen had the fastest time, 1:00.83, in Wednesday's semifinals, with Moses fourth.
The first day of the trials, though, belonged mostly to Baltimore. As Hoff swam, and the cheers began to rise, Phelps was in a nearby pool, warming down after his swim. He listened to the public address announcer bring Hoff home.
"When there's someone swimming for your home team, swimming for a spot on the Olympic team, it definitely gets you excited, and makes the event more exciting," Phelps said. "I was definitely excited to see her."
And Hoff was excited to be seen.
"I'm, like, so excited," she said.