When Chloe Sutton swims this week at the 2009 Junior National Championships, she won’t have to defend herself against violent opponents or relentless jellyfish. She’ll be free from worry about how choppy the Federal Way, Wash., pool is. The water won’t be too warm or too cold.
But the 17-year-old open-water phenom said that in many ways pool swimming can be more difficult.
“Pool feels harder sometimes because of the intensity that surrounds the pool,” said Sutton, who lives in California and trains with the Mission Viejo Nadadores. She trained with Coach Ray Benecki and the McLean-based Fish in 2005 and 2006.
Sutton won national championships in the Open Water 10K in 2006 and 2007. She was an Olympian in the event in 2008. And while many open water swimmers don’t really embrace the sport until they’re older – more seasoned and mature – Sutton loves the added challenges that it brings. She’s had jellyfish get in her suit and had opponents pull her down and hit her as they jockey for position.
“It makes swimming so much more exciting when you have all these elements you don’t have in the pool,” she said.
But Sutton emerged as a distance star — in the pool — at the U.S. national championships in July, where she won the 800-meter freestyle and finished second in the 400 freestyle.
“My whole year is dedicated to swimming,” Sutton said. “I don’t really ever focus on open water or pool swimming. I don’t usually go back and forth. I just focus on distance swimming.”
Sutton returned from Rome and the world championships last Monday. In Rome, she took to the pool and finished eighth in the 1,500 freestyle. She last competed in open water at the U.S. open-water championships in Florida in June, where she turned in what she considered a disappointing mark, finishing fourth.
The U.S. junior championships will run from Monday through Friday, and Sutton is scheduled to swim in six events, including the 800 and 1,500 freestyles. Former Fish teammate Kate Ziegler holds the world record in the 1,500 with a time of 15:42.54. Sutton is 30 seconds off that time, but has filled the void left by Ziegler, who battled swine flu this summer and missed the world championships.
“It makes me sad to see Kate not doing as well right now, but I know she’ll come back,” Sutton said.
Sutton said her family left the D.C. area in 2006 so she could swim with the Nadadores and Coach Bill Rose, who has trained Olympians Larsen Jensen and Mike Bruner. Rose said Sutton has the potential to be the best swimmer he’s worked with.
“I’ve had, through the years, some very credible people to coach,” Rose said. “My point being with Chloe, the process is still under way … What I’m looking forward to doing is watching [her] year-to-year transformation to be the best I’ve ever coached.”
By moving to California, Sutton severed ties with the Fish. She called Benecki’s organization a “great distance program” but said that it wasn’t the right fit for her.
“I’m really tough on myself when I swim,” she said. “I like my coaches to be a little bit more fun. Ray was just very intense and the program that he had was very specialized toward Kate. And I’m not Kate.”
Benecki did not respond to requests for comment.
In a telephone interview, Benecki said he was “disturbed” that Sutton felt the Fish was focused solely on Ziegler.
“We put more into Chloe at that time than we were even putting into Kate,” he said. It was while she was with the Fish, Benecki said, that Sutton developed an affinity for open water, and that a coach would drive her to practice in either Lake Anna or the Chesapeake Bay.
While Sutton is one of the premier swimmers in the field of this week’s junior nationals, her goal is not to dominate. According to Sutton and Rose, it’s twofold. She is competing to stay in shape and prepare for open water meets in New York next month and in Cancun in October. Also, she will wear a practice suit, to see how she does when not competing in one of the high-tech suits that will be banned by FINA, the international governing body for swimming, in January.
“I want her to be able to excel in whatever she swims in,” Rose said.
He was referring to the suits but he could have been talking about types of water. For now, Sutton is focused solely on the junior nationals.
“I’m not really expecting to do any phenomenal times out there, but I always surprise myself,” she said.