World class acts

The Baltimore Sun

At 17, Katie Hoff and Kimmie Meissner are already Olympic veterans, each making her mark by bending water to her will.

Hoff, of Towson, cuts an imposing figure as the fastest swimmer in the world in the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley. Meissner, of Bel Air, glides on the surface as the reigning world and national figure skating champion.

This week the teens are half a world away from home, trying to burnish their international credentials with an eye toward the next Olympics. If they can defend their respective world titles - Hoff in Melbourne, Australia; Meissner in Tokyo - they'll be one step closer to becoming the female faces of their sports.

In some ways, Meissner is already there, and she hopes that this week helps solidify the picture.

On the cover of the U.S. Figure Skating media guide for the 16-member World team, Meissner is the focal point, standing where stars like Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen once stood.

"It's really different to see my picture in the middle. It's a big responsibility," says Meissner, who signed endorsement deals with Under Armour, Subway and Visa after winning the U.S. title. "I'll do the best I can."

Hoff too, has, in many ways, already arrived. In 2005, she was named female athlete of the year by USA Swimming, and signed a 10-year endorsement deal with Speedo, the longest contract the swimsuit maker has given.

It's an honor, but Hoff still isn't always comfortable with some of the attention swimming has earned her.

"I know there are more expectations put on me now," Hoff says. "But I have a lot more experience, too. I really try not to think about what other swimmers are doing, or what people expect from me. I've learned that it's about only way I can keep myself sane."

Both have put in countless hours at practice, in the pool and on the ice, and nursed sore muscles afterward, hoping the hard work would pay off someday. Both of their families have sacrificed to further their careers.

Though the Meissners live in Bel Air, her parents drive her to the Ice Skating Science Development Center at the University of Delaware five times a week to train.

The Hoffs originally lived in Williamsburg, Va., but moved to Abingdon, and eventually to Towson to be closer to North Baltimore Aquatic Club where she trains.

"They never put any pressure on me, because they already knew I was putting enough pressure on myself," Hoff says. "For them to relocate our family to better my swimming career is really amazing."

Common threads

International fame, however, the kind that could land them on magazine covers and could earn them even more in endorsement deals, may be right around the corner.

Meissner will have to wait three years for her big shot at the Winter Games in Vancouver, but Hoff's crack at the top of the Olympic podium comes next year in Beijing.

It would be quite the accomplishment for two girls, born just four months apart, who also lived in Harford County - though Hoff only briefly.

The two teenagers have never met, but each admits they've admired from afar what the other has accomplished.

Despite being immersed in entirely different worlds, their ascension onto the Olympic stage has common threads. Hoff and Meissner each tried ballet before settling on their current sports, and both came from athletic families.

Meissner's father and brothers are hockey players, and Hoff's mother, Jeanne, was a star basketball player at Stanford University from 1980-83. In Athens and in Turin, Hoff and Meissner, respectively, were the youngest members of the entire U.S. Olympic teams.

Hoff considers herself a hip-hop devotee, and though she loves artists like The Fray, Fall Out Boy and Fergie, it's not unusual to hear Ludacris coming out of her headphones in between races. She loves to dance and log onto Facebook.com in her spare time.

Home-schooled by her mother, she can occasionally be spotted zipping around Towson in a blue Audi A3 that she bought with money she earned by winning events at the U.S. Open championships in 2005.

Traveling to Australia, she says, has been a lifelong dream.

"It's really nice here, but it's just so big," Hoff says, calling from Melbourne. "I'm looking forward to seeing a lot and experiencing more when I'm done swimming."

Meissner, whose taste in music ranges from the Beatles to the Killers, squeezes in classes at Fallston High School and wears a charm bracelet with charms from all the places she has traveled to while competing. Although she has taken a high-speed spin with a NASCAR driver at the Dover International Speedway, she says she's still struggling with the nuances of driving.

Different approaches

The two athletes have taken different approaches in the weeks leading up to the world championships.

The week before she left for Tokyo, Meissner appeared at a reading rally at a Harford County middle school with state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, answered reporters' questions during a teleconference and worked on her "Cool Kids" fundraising campaign for pediatric cancer patients.

Hoff, on the other hand, has been lying low, declining most interview requests, intensifying her workouts and trying to limit distractions. Early in her career, she struggled with nerves, but in the past few years, she has been able to harness that nervous energy and turn it into motivation. Despite her meteoric rise, she remains, according to her coach Paul Yetter, humble and earnest.

"I try to remember that there is always someone better than me," Hoff wrote recently on her Web site, katie-hoff.com, where she regularly answered fan mail before stopping in January. "I also don't think that you should get a big head over a time that you swim in the pool."

To some degree, both Meissner and Hoff were thrown into the Olympic spotlight years before the world expected them to arrive. Meissner's initial plan focused on making the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

"But then things happened," she says.

Stakes are high

Meissner finished third at Nationals in 2005, stealing the spotlight from reigning queen Kwan by landing a triple axel, the first U.S. woman to do so since Tonya Harding in 1991. Last year, she made the Olympic team with a silver-medal performance at Nationals and then finished sixth at the Winter Games in only her third senior international event.

That was nothing compared to what happened a month later, when Meissner stunned the field at the World Championships with a performance that included seven triple jumps.

"It's been a big transition, but you have to expect the unexpected, I guess," she said. "But everything last year was unexpected."

Hoff knows the feeling. In 2004, she stunned the swimming world at age 14 by swimming the fastest time of anyone in the 400-meter individual medley leading up to the Olympics.

Like Meissner, she did not win a medal in her Olympic debut, but she dominated the 2005 FINA World championships a year later in Montreal, winning three gold medals. Plenty of experts have predicted that Hoff - like North Baltimore Aquatic alum Michael Phelps, formerly of Rodgers Forge - will be a threat to win a handful of gold medals. In China, she'll be the same age Phelps was, 19, when he won eight medals in Athens.

Both understand what is at stake. Young as they are, Hoff and Meissner are no longer fresh-faced prodigies. They're veterans, expected to win.

"It's hard to get to the top," Meissner said. "But it's even harder to stay there."

Just don't ask them to switch places. Meissner can't swim so much as a lap. "I've tried, and I sink like a rock," she says.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

COMPARING KIMMIE AND KATIE

Kimmie Meissner

Height: 5-3; Birthday: Oct. 4, 1989

Schooling: Senior, Fallston High School

Began sport: 1995

Favorite off-water activity: Shopping, reading

If I weren't an athlete, I'd: be getting ready for college

On heavy rotation in my iPod: The Beatles

Biggest purchase: iPod for father's birthday

Biggest influence: My parents

Athletic pedigree: Father and three brothers, league hockey players

Katie Hoff

Height: 5-9; Birthday: June 3, 1989

Schooling: Home-schooled

Began sport: 1995

Favorite off-water activity: Hip-hop dancing

If I weren't an athlete, I'd: become a dancer

On heavy rotation on my iPod: The Fray, Ludacris, Fergie, Fall Out Boy

Biggest purchase: a blue Audi A3, a Chanel purse

Biggest influences: Parents, Tracy Caulkins, Lance Armstrong

Athletic pedigree: Mom, Jeanne Ruark Hoff, played basketball at Stanford

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