MONTREAL - When the national anthem started to play last night, Katie Hoff took a deep, cleansing breath. And then another. She swallowed hard, then bit her lower lip. Was it really real, she may have wondered? Was there actually a gold medal dangling from her neck?

You'd better believe it. Hoff, the bubbly 16-year-old from Abingdon, put to bed any questions about her ability to deliver in big races yesterday, winning the 200-meter individual medley in impressive fashion at the FINA World Championships.

Hoff, with a time of 2 minutes, 10.41 seconds, set a meet record, broke her own American record and gave notice that she will almost certainly be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. She led the entire way and closed strong, finishing .72 of a second ahead of Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry.

"A huge wave of relief went over me," Hoff said when asked what she was feeling right after the race. "There was all this buildup all year, and it all kind of came down to this moment. I'm just so happy that it went so well."

If anyone deserved a strong performance, it was Hoff. In the 200 and 400 IMs, she has been one of the best in the world since she was 14. But at the Olympics in Athens a year ago, she failed to make the final in the 400 IM - despite having the year's fastest time in the event - and then got sick from nerves when she got out of the pool.

Days later, she finished a disappointing seventh in the 200 IM.

"I think I was just more relaxed this time," Hoff said. "I told myself, 'You've done the training to back it up, now this is a time to have fun.' ... The thing for me is to not think about it too much."

Hoff is so talented, and her initial success came so quickly, that it's easy to overlook that she's still just a kid. For instance, she insists on wearing tiny silver earrings when she competes, not for luck, but because she says she "hates how a [swimming] cap looks on girls without earrings. It just kind of makes you look more feminine."

U.S. coach Jack Bauerle said, "In Athens, I think Kate wanted to swim so well, and by the end of that race, I think she probably didn't even recognize herself. Now she knows who she is, she knows she's one of the best in the world, and there was no panic in that swim tonight whatsoever. I'm particularly proud of Katie after going through what she did last year."

Bauerle said he also believes Hoff may be just getting started.

"We're seeing success in the IM, but she's just scratching the surface," Bauerle said. "We may see her in another stroke in the 200 down the road."

Overall, it was a fairly stellar day for American swimmers, especially 18-year-old Jessica Hardy, who set a world record in the semifinals of the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1:06.20, eclipsing the mark set by Australia's Leisel Jones at the 2003 world championships in Barcelona, Spain.

"Hopefully I'll be going faster in the finals," Hardy said jokingly. "I feel like it was an awesome swim. I definitely think I can go faster than this, but we'll see in the next swim."

It also was a solid day for Michael Phelps, who dominated the semifinals of the 200-meter freestyle, a day after he shockingly failed to qualify in the 400 freestyle. Phelps finished yesterday in 1:46.33, more than a second faster than Emiliano Brembilla of Italy.

"I tried not to use dolphin kicks much today," Phelps said. "I felt good in the water and things were going well. This is pretty much the fastest time I have done this year. I wanted to go out there and show that the [400 freestyle] was not how I planned to [perform] the entire meet."

Overall, however, the day belonged to Hoff, who couldn't stop smiling after the medal ceremony. Her coach, Paul Yetter, said Hoff has been working some with yoga exercises in the past year, which helps her breathing and concentration, but that the biggest difference was simply more experience.

"We don't really think about the hype," Yetter said. "We just try to do the best we can. The biggest thing for her is that she can see herself doing very well."

Hoff said she didn't dwell much on what happened in Athens, but that she has learned other ways to motivate herself.

"I kind of have this thing where I almost get, like, mad [before a race]," Hoff said. "I think, 'You can't let all this training go to waste. This is your time. You've done the training, and you're ready to go.' "