Melbourne, Australia -- Katie Hoff's eyes were all wet after the 400-meter individual medley yesterday morning, but it wasn't from the water in Susie O'Neill Pool at Rod Laver Arena. It was from, instead, tears of joy.
Hoff set the first individual world record of her career, blitzing the field by more than seven seconds at the FINA World Championships to finish with a time of 4:32.89.
It was an incredible swim, but almost as priceless was the look on the 17-year-old Towson resident's face when she saw the scoreboard. A stunned Hoff put her hand over her mouth, then jumped halfway out of the water in excitement. She smiled and smiled before the gravity of the moment finally dawned on her, and then she put her hand in front of her face again, just for a second, trying to hide the tears welling up in her eyes.
"It was complete shock," Hoff said. "I couldn't believe that I shaved off three seconds from my best time. I just couldn't be happier. I can't believe that I was getting emotional out there. I'm just so proud of myself."
It was Hoff's third gold medal of the week, and her second world record. Her first came when she swam anchor on the U.S. relay team that set a new mark in the 4 x 200-meter freestyle, but there was a certain satisfaction to going faster, on her own, than any woman in history in the 400 IM.
"I'm sure it's going to hit me at like 2 a.m.," said Hoff, who was still giddy nearly 40 minutes after her race. "I'll probably jolt up in bed."
Hoff admitted that she thought, coming into the meet, that she might have a chance to break the world record in the 200 IM, a mark she's been closing in on since 2005. But doing it in the 400 IM was a total surprise, especially considering that she wasn't pushed by anyone. Yana Martynova of Russia finished second, more than three body lengths behind Hoff.
The breaststroke was the key for Hoff, as has often been the case for her in this event the past two years. Other swimmers can hang with her during the butterfly and the backstroke, but Hoff looks like a Ferrari shifting into fifth gear when the race switches to the breaststroke.
During the medal ceremony, Hoff walked around Rod Laver Arena with a seemingly permanent grin. She signed autographs, posed for pictures and waved to fans before stopping to hug her mom, Jeanne, her dad, John, and her brother, Christian.
"It's been a blast, seeing Katie get her best times and to improve so much from two years ago," Jeanne Hoff said. "I'm just really proud of her. It's been really fun to watch her swim. ... Obviously, the world record was totally unexpected. She was trying very hard for the 200 IM record that to break the 400 [instead] is such a surprise."
Hoff defended her gold medals in both the 200 IM and the 400 IM that she won at the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal, but what was most obvious this week is the confidence she now radiates.
A bit shy around the media early in her career, Hoff was cracking jokes, busting out her best smile and having fun all week. She told stories about how embarrassed she was that she hadn't been able to get her nails done before the gold-medal ceremony in the 200 IM, and promised that she was going to celebrate her first gold by ordering the most decadent dessert from her hotel restaurant.
She also admitted, with playful exasperation, that she hasn't figured out a way to avoid the constant ribbing she gets from her teammates, most of whom are college-age or older.
"She's such a trouper, it's unreal," said Michael Phelps, who stopped taking questions in the middle of the press conference for his seventh gold medal so he could watch Hoff on TV and cheer her on as she broke the world record in the 400 IM. "She takes so much grief from all of us. We're just harassing her left and right. It's fun. She's like the little sister we never had.
"But she has grown a lot," Phelps added. "It's incredible to see her do that. I know she had been wanting to set a world record for awhile. She goes about things the same way that I do."
These world championships also represent the beginning of a new stage in Hoff's life. Right before she traveled to Melbourne, Hoff, who is home-schooled, completed her high school requirements.
"I have to take my SATs now," she said. "That's probably what I'll do when - or sometime around when - I get back. I'm going to wait until after '08 to decide about college. I definitely want to do something besides study for SATs to keep me mind busy, because I think I'd go crazy if it was just swimming, swimming, swimming."
Hoff said she's already ruled out applying to Stanford, where her mom was a star basketball player in the early 1980s.
"I don't want to be that smart," Hoff joked. "Plus, it'd be hard to juggle school and swimming with as hard as Stanford is. My mom always talked about how hard it was with basketball. I want to go to a good school with journalism."
That and brainstorm for a decent comeback for the next time Phelps starts teasing her.
"I suck at talking smack," Hoff said. "And he's always trying to fake me out and get me to flinch. I tell myself to prepare for it, and I still flinch. I could have like a million world records and he'd still give me grief."
Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.