Katie Hoff

Katie Hoff of Towson celebrates after winning the 400-meter individual medley and setting a world record of 4:31.12 during the U.S. Olympic swimming trials at Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb. (Getty Images / June 29, 2008)

In March, when Australia's Stephanie Rice broke Katie Hoff's world record in the 400-meter individual medley, Hoff wanted to jump back in the pool and offer an immediate rebuttal.

For several years, the 400 IM had been, in Hoff's words, "my baby." She had worn the crown as the fastest woman to ever swim the event, and someone had taken it away. And much as she wanted to get it back, she had to remain patient. Her time, her coach told her, would come.

Hoff finally got that chance last night, and with great satisfaction, she reclaimed the crown, grabbing the world record again with a blistering time of 4 minutes, 31.12 seconds in front of 14,000 at Qwest Center.

Hoff's time was .34 of a second faster than Rice's old record, set at the Australian Olympic trials in Sydney. The budding rivalry between the two 19-year-olds is shaping up to be one of the best races at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

"I definitely wanted [to get the record back]," Hoff said. "I remember the day I lost it. I was really kind of discouraged. But all those 400 IM sets have paid off, and I'm really excited for Beijing now."

Hoff, from Towson, got a hug from her mom, her dad and her younger brother before the medal ceremony, then did a victory lap with a stuffed teddy bear tucked under her arm that is awarded to all the winners. Over the loudspeakers, Lenny Kravitz's cover of the Guess Who song "American Woman" blared as the arena crowd showered her with applause.

Hoff's world-record swim took place approximately 30 minutes after Michael Phelps set a world record in the men's 400 IM. Afterward, one reporter asked a playful question: Would she try to match Phelps world record for world record this week?

"I don't think so," Hoff said, chuckling. "Michael's kind of a world-record machine. Just to get one is pretty special."

It certainly wasn't an easy victory for Hoff. Elizabeth Beisel, a 15-year-old from Bluefish Swim Club in Massachusetts, swam the third-fastest time in the world this year, going 4:32.87. She actually held a slim lead over Hoff at the 200-meter mark, but as usual, Hoff's breaststroke proved to be the difference as the North Baltimore Aquatic Club standout stepped on the gas and pulled away.

"I think I was just trying to go for a best time and it just happened to be a world record," Hoff said. "I've done enough training where I feel like I can give it 100 percent every race, so I wanted to go all out."

Beisel looks a lot like Hoff did four years ago, when she made the Olympic team at 15. What she lacks in experience, she makes up for in talent. Beisel sheepishly admitted that this year she has dropped 12 seconds off her best time in that event.

"I never thought I had a chance to make the team in the 400 IM," Beisel said. "You look at it, and it's like, 'Oh my god, that's awesome.'"

Just as awesome was the hug Phelps gave Hoff in the cool-down area after her swim. He also had some playful congratulations for her.

"I just told her 'That's what Baltimore does,'" Phelps said.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com