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Saltwater Daffy
Franz Lidz
August 14, 2006
Fourteen-year-old Chloe Sutton is making waves in the newest Olympic sport, open-water swimming
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August 14, 2006

Saltwater Daffy

Fourteen-year-old Chloe Sutton is making waves in the newest Olympic sport, open-water swimming

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The first time Chloe Sutton ever raced in open water, she made a big splash. On June 2, two weeks before finishing eighth grade, she participated in the 5K women's national championship while attending an open-water instructional camp in Fort Myers, Fla. She plunged into the Gulf of Mexico and led the other 85 competitors for 800 meters before finishing second.

Two days later the lithe hairpin of a 14-year-old from Ashburn, Va., signed up for the women's 10K event on a whim and made an even bigger splash. Though she started dead last in a field of 34 and got elbowed in the eye, Sutton outsprinted three swimmers over the final 400 meters to finish first in just over two hours, coming out of nowhere to become the national champion.

Asked how it felt to dip her toe in the Gulf to such startling effect, Sutton says, "Getting through the race was exciting, and winning was even more exciting." Most exciting of all for her is that 10K open-water swimming will make its Olympic debut in 2008. She is the poster child for a sport in which the U.S. is a neophyte in uncharted waters.

Until now, Sutton has been known as a freestyle prodigy. She took to the water when she was seven and by age 12 she had set age-group records at 800 meters (8:59.95) and 1,000 yards (9:57.33). Last year she qualified for the Olympic trials in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle and is now No. 1 in her age group at 400, 800 and 1,500 meters.

So even though Sutton will make her international open-water debut in the 10K next week at the Pan-Pacific Championships in Victoria, B.C., she's still pursuing medals in the pool. Last week she was the fastest meter maid, 14-and-under, in the 400 and 800 at the senior long course nationals in Irvine, Calif.

But the rap on Sutton has been that her modest height (5'8") and meek flip turns have limited her. Neither is a factor in open water. "This event better fits Chloe's temperament," says mentor Carol Breiter, who in 1983 swam the English Channel. "Strategy is the key." In the helter-skelter of pushing, shoving and kicking, good positioning is paramount; an open-water swimmer must hang back early and let others fight the waves and the currents. "Chloe's strength is her sprint," says her coach, Grady Hough. "She can break away whenever she wants to."

Sutton--whose father, David, a lieutenant colonel, played offensive tackle on an Air Force team that beat Texas in the 1985 Bluebonnet Bowl and finished No. 8 in the nation--approaches swimming with an obsessive single-minded devotion. She practices in a pool more than four hours a day, which doesn't leave much time for being a teenager. Asked if she likes music, she says, "Not really." Movies? "Not really." Dating? Don't ask. "Chloe can be a normal 14-year-old," says her mother, Wendy. "She's just very focused on swimming."

Sutton was one of eight elite female freestylers at the camp in Florida where she raced in that 5K national championship. She and 15-year-old Kirsten Groome swam side-by-side for pretty much the entire race, but with 1,200 meters left, Sutton went wide around a buoy. Groome went tight. In the ensuing collision, Sutton lost her goggles and about 30 seconds. "Kirsten beat me by two body lengths," she grumbles. Chloe may not be mad about boys, but she's still mad about the buoy.