Melbourne, Australia -- Katie Hoff popped her head out of the water this morning, glanced up at the black and yellow scoreboard high above her head in Rod Laver Arena and flashed a huge grin. Contained in that grin was joy, but also a hint of relief.
Hoff, a 17-year-old from Towson who trains at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, is a self-proclaimed worrier. She gets nervous, and in the swimming pool, nerves can feel like an anchor. Getting her first swim out of the way at the FINA World Championships was important. A good first swim could lead to a big first day and a stellar world championship. And a disappointing first swim? She didn't even want to think about it.
And so when she looked up and saw her time in preliminary heat of the 200-meter individual medley -- 2:12.04, her best morning swim ever -- she had a chance, for a moment, to relax. Her time was the fastest of the day, 0.61 of a second ahead of Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry.
"I was just relieved to get that first one out of the way," Hoff said. "That first race is always nerve-racking for me, and I definitely wanted to get off to a good start."
It was a strong start to a busy day. In addition to the preliminaries and the semifinals of the 200 individual medley, Hoff raced in the semifinals of the 400 freestyle, finishing eighth, good enough for a spot in the final.
It's not quite the schedule that Michael Phelps of Rodgers Forge will be swimming this week as he tries to win eight gold medals. But it's more evidence that Hoff -- the best female medley swimmer in the world -- could be a real threat to medal in the freestyle events in the next two Olympics.
"There's always going to be a little bit of nerves [when swimming two events in one day]," Hoff said "But I did this schedule at nationals, and I knew I could do it. I've been training really hard, so I think my body will be able to hold up."
These world championships have been billed by many as a showcase for Phelps to take one step closer in his quest to claim the unofficial title as the greatest swimmer of all time. But, they're equally important for Hoff. She has a chance to be the dominant female face of U.S. swimming, and potentially snag the kind of fame and endorsements that Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Beard earned after winning Olympic gold medals.
And though Hoff is quick to deflect those kind of comparisons, it's obvious just by looking at her that she's hungry to make a statement in Australia. Her arms, once skinny and undefined, now ripple with muscle. Her shoulders look as though they've been chiseled from granite. It's visual evidence of the countless laps she has completed during training the past two years.
That didn't stop the 21-year-old Phelps from ribbing her during a press conference yesterday, prior to the start of the championships. Hoff -- who used to look up at Phelps in silent awe, but now describes him as an unofficial older brother -- was explaining how comfortable she now felt during big international meets, when Phelps teasingly cut in.
"She's still a kid though," Phelps said, drawing laughs from the media.
Technically Phelps may be right. But he too realizes that Hoff's swimming prowess is well beyond her years.
For results from today's final, go to baltimoresun.com.