When Katie Hoff was less than two pool lengths into the 400-meter freestyle final yesterday, everyone at the Missouri Grand Prix - including the swimmer - sensed something special might be happening.
At each turn, as her lead widened and her time kept pace with the U.S. record, the crowd turned up the volume and the announcer grew more frantic.
The Mizzou Aquatic Center erupted when Hoff touched the wall and coach Paul Yetter raced to the finish line. With a time of 4 minutes, 2.20 seconds, Hoff broke the oldest standing U.S. swimming record - one set by Janet Evans at the 1988 Summer Olympics before Hoff was alive.
Hoff, 18, began the day with a win in the 100-meter freestyle with the 15th-fastest time ever (54.28). After an hourlong break, she came back strong in the 400 to post the second-fastest time in the world. Only Laure Manaudou of France has a faster time, 4:02.13 in 2006 in Budapest, Hungary.
Clinging to the side of the pool, the Towson swimmer shook her head as she stared at the video board with her score and the word, "WOW," in 3-foot-high letters. She punched the air with her fist and then rested her head on the wall.
"I'm really shocked to be going that fast right now. The race felt good. I took it out pretty fast, and I'm kind of still in shock," Hoff said long after her cool-down sessions and the medals ceremony were over. "I could hear the announcer underwater. I could hear his voice kind of high and very excited, so I said, 'I must be doing something pretty good.'"
Hoff said she could sense she was pulling away from the field, including Kate Ziegler, the holder of the U.S. Open record in the 400, who was in the next lane. Hoff led by three body lengths at the end of two laps and by nearly six body lengths going into the final 50 meters.
"I don't always like to base what I'm doing off of other people because you never know what kind of swim they're having. But I could definitely feel myself pulling ahead, and at that point, I just kind of put my head down and tried to finish the race," Hoff said.
Hoff called it "an honor" to break Evans' record. Evans, the queen of U.S. distance racers, was 17 when she set the record of 4:03.85 during the waning days of the Reagan administration. The mark stood for 7,086 days.
Yetter said they try not to look at records "because that sets limits on what you can do."
"So we've never once talked about that record. I will say, though, that [Janet Evans] is probably the greatest female distance swimmer in history, and she set that record in an Olympic final against some very fast East Germans," Yetter noted. "Katie has been training great, and we expect her to drop time, but it was a great swim."
Hoff was fourth in the 400 at the FINA World Championships last year. Yesterday, she shaved more than two seconds off her previous best, a second-place finish at last year's nationals.
"For this event, I've just been slowly kind of building up experience," she said. "I think the 400 can be one of my better events."
"My favorite event switches on how well I'm doing or how little an event hurts. I hurt pretty bad. I'm glad I'm learning how to do the race."
Evans still holds the American - and world - record in the 800 freestyle, 8:16.22, set in Tokyo in 1989.
Hoff is scheduled to swim in the preliminaries at that distance tonight.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun