By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Even though she was a member of the 2008 Olympic Team, it wasn’t until four years later in London when Chloe Sutton realized that she belonged.
Perhaps it took her a while because she was largely an open water competitor for the first few years of her career. So when she decided to focus her training and competitions on the pool in 2010, she admits it took her a little while to find her groove.
Once she did, however, it’s been one success after another for her with a steady ascension ever since.
“It took a long time for me to learn that (that I belonged),” Sutton said. “Even after two Olympic teams and eight years competing on the National Team, I still have to remind myself that I’m good enough to compete with these other amazing athletes.
“It’s really easy for me to get intimidated by all the amazing names that I see around me; people that I have always looked up to. In London, I realized that I could be considered one of those names. I earned my spot on that team, and I deserved to be there. That’s always been something that I’ve struggled with, but that I’m getting the hang of now. I guess the key word here is confidence.”
Hard to believe considering the lengthy, successful career Sutton has enjoyed since she made her first Mutual of Omaha Pan Pacific Championships team at 14 and won gold in the 10K at the 2007 Pan American Games.
This followed a strong showing at 2007 World Open Water Championships, gold in the 10K at the 2007 London World Cup and silver in the same event at the Seville (Spain) World Cup.
By 2008, she had earned the bronze medal in the 5K at the Open Water World Championships, setting herself up for a great year. She qualified for the Beijing Olympics by winning the 10K Beijing Test Event, and in Beijing, Sutton competed in the 10K marathon but didn’t medal.
The next year, she won the 5K at Open Water National Championships but was slowly realizing her real passion was in the pool and not in open water.
“I was really missing being in the pool, not that I didn’t enjoy open water,” Sutton said. “I was never exclusively an open water swimmer. I stopped swimming open water just because that’s what I wanted to do. I just started liking the pool more and open water less. Now I enjoy watching (best friend and roommate) Ashley Twichell succeed in open water.
“It’s awesome that we both swim distance, but we never really compete against each other. We spend most practices swimming side by side. She helps push me with longer swims, and I help her with her speed work. She’s the perfect training partner. It’s nice to go to races and watch her from the beach.”
Once she dedicated herself to the pool, Sutton’s career really took off. She made the 2009 FINA World Championship team, placing eighth in the 1500 free, and finished the 2010 Arena Grand Prix season as the series champion.
For the second year in a row, she won a national title in the 800 freestyle at the Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships and also finished second in the 400 free. At Worlds that summer, she just missed earning a medal with a fourth-place finish in the 800 free.
The following year at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Sutton earned a spot on the “pool” team with a second-place finish in the 400 free, but failed to make the final in London when she finished 10th in prelims. Her spot on the Olympic Team gave her the unique distinction of being the first U.S. swimmer to make the Olympic team in open water and in the pool.
Still, she said her second Olympic experience was monumental in her continued development as a swimmer and competitor.
“My Olympic experiences were vastly different,” said Sutton, who bypassed college swimming in 2010 when she went “pro,” one of the first female swimmers to go this route. “In 2008, I was an awkward 16-year-old who was still trying to find her place within the team. I was shy, quiet, and in awe of everything going on around me. It was an amazing experience, but quite a whirlwind. I don’t think I was able to fully grasp everything that was happening.
“In 2012, I was a ‘veteran,’ and I had a place on the team. I was able to absorb the experience so much better. That trip gave me so much confidence. While I was in London, I felt myself coming out of my shell and finding my place. It was definitely a growing experience.”
Last summer at Nationals, she went one better than the year before when she earned spots on her third World Championships team following second-place finishes in the 400 and 800 freestyles.
Following Worlds, Sutton chose a change of venue and coaching when she moved to Raleigh, N.C., to train with Twichell and fellow 2012 Olympian Charlie Houchin under Coach John Payne.
She said the new location has breathed new life and enthusiasm into her swimming, allowing her to get exactly what she needs from each workout because of the small training group.
“We focus a lot on technique which is exactly what I need right now as well as really challenging workouts,” she said. “Swimming is my favorite part of the day; it’s what I look forward to. Days that I don’t swim just seem grey to me. Most people don’t believe that since I’ve been swimming for 16 years with most of that at a very high intensity, but I think that’s what I love about it. It’s familiar and comfortable to me to be in the water, and I push myself physically. I love feeling strong and graceful, and that’s how I feel when I swim.”
And when she’s not swimming competitively, Sutton said she enjoys participating in the Fitter and Faster Swim Tour – something that gives her great fun interacting with kids in the water.
“The reason that I push myself so hard is for the kids at my clinics,” Sutton said. “It’s my biggest source of inspiration to see so many kids with such big dreams. I love sharing my love of the water with others.
“I know that when my career is over, people will forget about my accomplishments pretty quickly, but each kid at my clinics who I was able to inspire to chase after their dreams will remember me much longer.”
Just 22, Sutton said she knows she still has a few years left in the pool before she decides what’s next for her.
With the Rio de Janeiro Olympics two years away, she said she will continue through 2016 Trials and decide what to do from there.
“Right now, I’m focusing on 2016. After that, I’ll see where I am in my life and I’ll re-evaluate,” Sutton said. “I’d like to start a family at some point, so after 2016, that might be the goal.
“I have been in the spotlight for a good portion of my career. I was breaking NAGs when I was 12, and I made my first National/Pan Pac team when I was 14 by winning open water nationals. My life has revolved around swimming since it began when I was 6, which I don’t mind because I still love the water today as much as I did when I first started.”