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.


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.