Chloe Sutton turned 20 this week with a unique goal in sight. If all goes well for the next few months, she could become the first U.S. swimmer to have made Olympic teams in both open water and pool events.
Sutton, who swims for the Mission Viejo (Calif.) Nadadores club, blazed onto the open water scene at age 14 and over the next two years would win gold in the 10K at the Pan American and Pan Pacific Games and a bronze medal in the 5K at the 2008 World Championships. Sutton was the only U.S. woman to compete in the 10K race in Beijing in 2008, the first year the grueling discipline of open water was included in the Summer Games, and finished 22nd.
But by 2010, Sutton's double life was wearing thin. When she qualified for the open water worlds and the Pan Pac pool team -- events that were three weeks apart -- her coach, the venerable Bill Rose, asked where her heart was and Sutton put open water aside.
"She was never not a pool swimmer," Rose said. "Ninety-eight percent of her training was in the pool and geared for the pool." Sutton benefitted confidence-wise from her early success and grew because of her experience at the top level internationally in open water, Rose said.
Sutton has won the 400 in national and international competition and is a two-time national champion in the 800 since targeting the pool, but she's still in transition. Like many open water swimmers, she used a two-beat kick, but Rose has phased that out in favor of a six-beat kick to bump up her speed, asking her to give up her old two-beat cadence even in training. Sutton just completed that changeover and is racing both events with her revamped stroke now, but won't see what happens in a tapered meet until the Olympic trials in late June.
Rose said he thinks it will take an 8:18 to get on the Olympic podium in the 800 -- six seconds faster than Sutton's personal best, but achievable, he said.
"I have to give her so much credit," Rose said. "She has her eye on the prize. She lives the sport."
Sutton spoke with us more about the road ahead at last month's Austin Grand Prix:
Question from Ford: What made you decide to give up open water swimming and train for pool events only?
Answer from Sutton: It was what was making me happy. ... When I closed my eyes and tried to picture myself on the medal stand, I pictured myself at a pool instead of on the beach. And it was getting kind of hard to juggle between the two -- at some competitions, the open water team travels completely separately, so I would have to go back and forth between the two. Two different hotels, different venues, it was getting challenging.
Q: Why do you think there's so little depth in distance swimming in this country?
A:It takes a special kind of person to get in the pool and swim straight for two hours. I hated anybody getting out of the pool after me. I wanted to be the one in the pool the longest. You don't see very many kids wanting to be the last in the pool. I watch the sprinters and the practices are so fun and I'm always so jealous of them. Not that sprinting's easy -- it's very hard, and I understand that. ...
The personalities of the distance swimmers are very similar. We're all a little bit quieter, we keep to ourselves a little more, we're a little bit stubborn. It's long hours and not a lot of reward. A lot of us decided not to swim in college because they don't care about distance swimming, it's not their top priority, they're focused on the relays, the relays are the point events. So for a lot of kids their goal is to get a scholarship and they're going to focus on the 100 and 200 because that's where they're recruiting the most, that's where the most people go to the Olympics. Those are the money races.
Q:How is your background in open water helping now?
A:It gave me a lot of experience with travel, with being able to adapt to different situations, really in the most extreme sense. Open water is crazy. Now being in the pool is so cushy, I'm so comfortable. I've started [open water] races where I had no idea where the finish was going to be, didn't know where my feeder was going to be, didn't know what time the race was going to start. You just have to be so laid back and adapt to it. Having that background really allows me to be pretty cool in the pool.
Q:What was your reaction when you heard Janet Evans was coming back and competing in your events?
A:I think it's awesome. It's putting some attention on distance swimming. It's good for the sport. It's good for me too, because I'm one of those people who can't ever imagine stopping swimming, and I want to make sure my body can withstand all this training for that long. The fact that she's been swimming, swam through her pregnancies, that makes me happy to know that I can probably do that too.
Q:Does it motivate you to go faster even though she's 20 years older than you?
A:Maybe when she gets closer to my times. I'll be interested to see how she does. Definitely if I'm ever actually racing her, I'll have a little extra push to be faster than her. But, right now, it's just cool to see her back in the water.