Blue is for first, red is for second ...

Swimming meant a kaleidoscope of ribbon colors to Katie Hoff until a fateful finish in an otherwise forgettable summer meet in Virginia.

"It was a 25-yard breaststroke," Hoff said. "I remember looking up and seeing one of my friends far ahead of me, and saying, 'I don't like this.' I guess the competitive side of me broke free. I started racing at that point, instead of just swimming."

That occurred in 1996, the year of the Atlanta Olympics, and it's convenient to mark her growth in terms of the quadrennial. In 2000, she was still a little girl, mesmerized by the images of Australia on her television screen. Now comes the summer of Athens, where 15-year-old Katie Hoff could be the youngest member of the American Olympic team.

Oops.

Hoff doesn't utter the "O" word. A member of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, she's based at its satellite operation in Harford County, away from the minicams that orbit Michael Phelps. In her own words, Hoff would "rather be flying under the radar until the trials," but she lost the advantage of surprise last winter.

The U.S. Olympic trials start July 7 in Long Beach, Calif., and Hoff is the fastest seed in the first event, the women's 400-meter individual medley. Last February, she won a national title in that event. Last month, she became the sixth-fastest American female ever, behind such names as Tracy Caulkins, Janet Evans and Summer Sanders.

All that happened before she turned 15 June 3.

Hoff was born in 1989, the year Yana Klochkova started swimming in Ukraine. Klochkova will turn 32 a week before she defends her Olympic title in the 400 IM. Four years ago in Sydney, she dropped the world record to 4 minutes, 33.59 seconds. Klochkova hasn't been under 4:36 since; she won the 2003 worlds in 4:36.74.

Hoff would have taken the bronze in Barcelona with the 4:39.82 that she registered at the chilly Santa Clara International.

Two factors led the Hoff family to relocate from Williamsburg, Va., to Abingdon last August. The move got her father closer to the center of his sales territory, and Hoff into a club accustomed to sending babes into the Olympic woods.

Her parents were already familiar with moving vans and athletic celebrity.

John Hoff spent his formative years in Mexico, where business had taken his father. Jeanne Ruark Hoff was an Air Force brat who was born in Mississippi and lived in five other states, the Panama Canal Zone and the Philippines.

That's where her father put up a basketball hoop, and Jeanne didn't stop shooting until she put her collegiate career on hold to marry John in 1980.

Both were students at Stanford. From 1978 to 1983, Jeanne scored 2,038 points for the Cardinal and still holds career records for scoring average, 17.6 points, and field goal percentage, .586. She matched up against Cheryl Miller, played in the first NCAA tournament for women and still looks like trouble in the low post.

Katie, 5 feet 8, hopes to look her 5-11 mom in the eye one day.

Katie was 5 when the family switched coasts and moved to Virginia. Added to a mix of activities that included ballet and gymnastics, swimming was so low-key there were Sunday dinners when her parents realized no one had remembered that day's practice.

A quick study, Hoff progressed from neighborhood teams in Williamsburg to clubs in Richmond. That meant nationally ranked times, but a one-way drive of 60 miles.

"Katie came to us as an intense, motivated little girl," said Jack Bierie, the head coach at Typhoon Aquatics. "She had tons of talent and always wanted to do more.

"I tried to get her to have more fun, relax and enjoy herself. I'd like to think we'd have her at the same level if she had stayed with us. It's hard to let an athlete like that go."

In her final meet with Typhoon Aquatics, Hoff finished fourth in the 200 IM at the 2003 Summer Nationals in College Park last August.

Two months earlier, she had taken a scouting trip to Edgewood. Hoff had befriended the NBAC Harford group's best swimmer, Courtney Kalisz, who has done big things for coach Paul Yetter.

His mentor is Murray Stephens, the co-founder of the NBAC, who had created a culture that sent Anita Nall to the Olympics in 1992, then Beth Botsford in '96 and Phelps four years ago.

None of them was older than 15 when they qualified.

Hoff settled into a 25-yard pool off Route 40, passed on a junior national trip to Australia and dreamed bigger.

"Not to sound cocky or anything, but I qualified for that junior national trip nine months earlier, and my goals had changed," Hoff said.

"I had also just joined a new team, and I didn't want to leave them for three weeks. It can be difficult when you go to a new team, because most of the kids have grown up together. This group has been very accepting and supportive."

Hoff, Kalisz, Allison Barnes and Jackie Gonzalez set a slew of national age-group relay records in the 13-14 category last winter. Kalisz, only 14 herself, has qualified for the trials in multiple events.

Having met the standard in eight, Hoff has no apparent weakness. She is also a player in the 200 IM, where Amanda Beard is the only American who has gone faster this year.

Hoff has done solo morning workouts at the Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center's Olympic-sized pool in Mount Washington, but Yetter said she is just scratching her training potential. She averages just under 40 miles of training a week, a load she was already accustomed to.

"Katie is probably doing the same mileage she was a year ago," Yetter said. "We've found a way in the last few months to do more. There's definitely room for her to do more training, but not now."

The home-schooled Hoff will have plenty of drive time to study in the fall.

When Phelps follows his coach to Michigan after the Olympics, the NBAC's elite group will return to its previous emphasis, high schoolers. Yetter and his swimmers will move full-time to Meadowbrook, where the indoor pool is adorned with poster-sized photos of the NBAC's Olympians.

By then, Hoff's could be hanging there, too.
Fast times

Katie Hoff was 14 on May 22, when her time in the 400 individual medley made her the sixth-fastest American woman ever in the event:

Name, Year, Time
Summer Sanders, 1992, 4:37.58
Janet Evans, 1988, 4:37.76
Maggie Bowen, 2001, 4:39.06
Tracy Caulkins, 1984, 4:39.24
Kristine Quance, 1993, 4:39.25
Katie Hoff, 2004, 4:39.82

Source: USA Swimming