What a difference a year can make in the life of a 16-year-old swimmer. Last summer at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Katie Hoff emerged from the pool after a devastatingly poor performance in her first race, collapsed on the deck, then stumbled behind a curtain for privacy. There, overwhelmed not by illness but by pressure, the youngest athlete on the U.S. Olympic team -- then just 15 -- vomited.
Monday night, Hoff swam easily to her first major international title, claiming the gold in the 200-meter individual medley at the 2005 world swimming championships at Jean-Drapeau Park. Hoff, who finished in 2 minutes 10.41 seconds, executed so flawlessly she not only broke her American record by 43 seconds, but she also challenged the eight-year-old world record in the event before fading in the last 10 meters.
"I'm just proud of Katie, particularly after having gone through what she went through last year," said U.S. women's team coach Jack Bauerle. "That was sort of a monkey off her back type of deal."
Hoff's performance topped the night for the U.S. team, which also got a stunning world-record swim in the women's 100 breaststroke from Jessica Hardy, 18, who was ranked 11th in the world in the event last year; a gold-medal performance from Brendan Hansen, who won the 100 breaststroke final to avenge a disappointing second-place finish in last year's Olympics; and a silver-medal effort from Ian Crocker, who set an American record in the 50 fly (23.12).
South Africa's Roland Schoeman won the gold with a world-record time (22.96) that stunned Crocker.
"That's faster," Crocker said, "than I've ever been in freestyle."
Hoff, who lives in Towson and trains with the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, said she felt a surge of massive relief when she touched the wall. Much like last summer, when she entered the 400 individual medley in Athens with the best time in the world, Hoff was the favorite here, having posted the fastest time in the qualifying round. But unlike last year, she didn't stagger in the pool -- or out.
"A huge wave of relief went over me," she said. "I was so excited. The buildup of the whole year came to this moment. I was just so happy it went this well."
Hoff, who giggled and squealed after the race, also seemed vexed when asked about the fit of nerves that contributed to her 17th place finish in the Olympic 400 individual medley. "I'm trying not to think about that too much," she said, her voice almost trembling when the subject was broached. "I was just more relaxed."
Hoff, who is coached by Paul Yetter, concluded those Summer Games by finishing seventh in the 200 individual medley final with a time that was slower than she had swum at the Olympic trials.
"She wanted to swim so well," Bauerle said. "She probably at the end of that race didn't recognize herself."
This winter, Hoff said, she didn't care to analyze her shaky response to her first major international meet. Her approach this season isn't so much different, she hinted, just more impervious to pressure. She said she strives to get angry rather than jittery. She takes more deep breaths before races. As for visualization or other psychological strategies -- they're not for Hoff.
"I just try to go," she said. "The thing for me is not to think about it too much."
Bauerle figures Hoff has matured as any teenager would. At last year's Olympics, she was two months past her 15th birthday. He said she seems to have gone from being one of the world's best swimmers to one of the world's best performers.
Monday night, she posted world-record splits at 50, 100 and 150 meters. Her time here broke the world championship record held by Ukraine's Yana Klochkova (2:10.75), though it fell short of the world mark of 2:09.72 held by China's Yanyan Wu. Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry finished second in 2:11.13, and Australia's Lara Carroll finished third in 2:13.32.
Hoff has two events left here -- the 400 individual medley and the 4x200 freestyle relay.
"There was no panic in that swim tonight," Bauerle said. "All I know is, right now, that is a very different young lady. . . . She's got confidence."
"A huge wave of relief went over me," Katie Hoff said, after touching the wall first in the women's 200-meter individual medley with a time of 2:10.41.American Jessica Hardy throws up her hands as she sees her world-record time (1:06.20) in her semifinal heat of the women's 100-meter breaststroke.