Winning can be everything when you're barely 15 and gunning for the Olympics.
But so can acceptance.
Focused on the Games since she was just 10, Katie Hoff reached her goal with a searing time in the final of the 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials in early July.
"It felt like all the pressure and the weight on my shoulders had melted off me," Hoff said by telephone from Palo Alto, Calif., as she trains with the U.S. squad. "That day I had been dreading swimming, but it was such a relief to finally make the team."
Despite the attention and the accolades, Hoff hasn't had a smooth road in becoming the youngest athlete the United States will send to Athens.
"It's very lonely at the top," said her mother, Jeanne Hoff, "being a female and being so aggressive in the pool and having such a need to win everything. A lot of, particularly, girls at her age don't understand it. Girls at this age tend to want to be the same."
Sounding like a normal 15-year-old, Hoff announced her love of school dances. Of course, she doesn't actually go to school -- she's been home-schooled almost her entire life. But her swimming friends have integrated her into their social scene, providing her with the grounded perspective and normalcy she might lack as a world-class swimmer.
Since the Hoff family's move to Abingdon, Md., from Williamsburg about a year ago, Katie has trained at North Baltimore Aquatic Club, a place full of teenagers who actually seem to understand her goals and admire her for her tenacity. But it hasn't always been so. Other swim clubs have featured girls who decided social lives and school extracurriculars might be a bigger draw than endless hours in a pool.
The swimmers at North Baltimore "have invited her to go to the movies, do teenage stuff," Jeanne said. "She hasn't had that in the past as much. Ten, 11, 12, 13, she didn't have a lot of social life because she was different in a way because of what she was pursuing. She didn't have the interest in boys. Those things were important to her, but not as important to her. That was the difference. She still had the interest and the desire, but it had to be around swimming. That they didn't understand."
As Hoff has begun to move in elite swimming circles, first at North Baltimore and now with the national team, she has come face to face with swimmers who share her desire and her passion, who accept her. The older swimmers have become surrogate siblings during the final training push to Athens.
"It's kind of like I have 20 big sisters and brothers," said Hoff, who has one younger sibling. "Sometimes people could think it might be lonely, but people have been really nice and fun to be around. . . . It's been a really good experience. They joke around a lot with me."
During a recent "Ladies Night," the female swimmers gathered to decorate shirts and watch a movie in one of the team rooms, aiding the feeling of camaraderie Hoff has experienced since her masterful performance in the Olympic trials.
"I think the biggest problem with the team is being so young," Jeanne said. "She wanted so desperately to be accepted. She felt impatient for it to happen. She wanted to have friends. I think she was gaining respect in the pool, but also people got to know her. I think that of all things has meant a great deal to her."
Her wavering adolescent's voice and youthful inflections seem to counter what Hoff has accomplished in 15 years. But when those around her talk about her, another side is revealed, one that boasts a mixture of control, self-reliance and determination. Through her swimming and home-schooling program, Hoff appears to have gained a mastery over her time and her schedule that few at her age possess.
"Since I have to do school I'd rather be able to get it over with and plan it around my swimming schedule," said Hoff, who also qualified for the Olympic in the 200 individual medley. "I'm motivated because I know I have to finish. [My mom] just says, 'If you want to take the day off you can, but you'll have to pay for it later.' Sometimes I'm not as productive for the whole day as I'd like, but I get it done."
According to Paul Yetter, who has been coaching Hoff for a year, she has been able to lower her time quickly because of these skills, including the ability to formulate a plan for her training and improve on a daily basis.
Hoff tends to believe she hasn't missed out during all of the time she has spent in the pool. While the allure of school dances, late-night movies and sneaking in just a smidge after curfew looms large, Hoff knows the momentary pleasure is no match for the effect it would have on her accomplishments. Bedtime almost always falls between 9:30 p.m. and 10, but gets pushed to 10:30 if she goes out.
Like most swimmers, the goal remains to swim a personal best every single time. And with years of peak performances left and her own best little more than a tenth of a second slower than Summer Sanders's American mark, Hoff can see records falling.
Despite the difficulties and the lofty goals, Hoff projects a fun-loving, laughter-filled persona. Even in the pressure-packed situations, competing against swimmers more than six years her senior, Hoff never seems to have lost focus or become overwhelmed. And now, with her short-term goal realized, she's trying to keep that same perspective amid some new, unexpected challenges.
"It's been a little hard to adjust to" the publicity, Hoff said. "But I think I've adjusted pretty well to it. It's definitely been fun. Who doesn't like getting a bit of attention?"