Shortly after returning home from the 10-kilometer, open-water test event in Beijing in late May, U.S. swimmer Chloe Sutton and her mom, Wendy, were sitting in their car at an intersection in Orange County, Calif. Suddenly, a gold, star-shaped balloon appeared. Wendy turned to Chloe and said, "Awww, how cute, it's a star! Make a wish!"
Chloe, without hesitation, responded, "I wish, one day, I could go to the Olympics."
It was a surreal moment because -- after a few seconds -- Sutton realized she had won the test event and would be heading back to Beijing -- this time, for the Olympic Games.
Sutton was introduced to the 10k event in 2006 when, as a highly-ranked 1500-meter swimmer, she was invited to the USA Swimming Open Water Select Camp. The national governing body for swimming was trying to recruit more racers to get involved with the 10k, which had recently been named a new Olympic sport. She won her first event, the 2006 Open Water Swimming National Championships, which qualified her for the national team.
In just two years of 10k racing, the 16-year-old's long-distance dominance has enabled her to compete overseas where she has earned three gold medals, one silver and one bronze while maintaining her hold as a two-time national champion. On Wednesday in Beijing's Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park, Sutton and 24 others, featuring Paralympian Natalie du Toit, will line up in front of roughly 37,000 fans for the 10k, which translates into 6.21 miles.
"I love everything about open water," says Sutton, who started swimming when she was seven and also enjoys body surfing. "There are so many things going on and so many things to think about."
There is a juxtaposition to 10k racing. A panoramic view of a 10k race will show you swimmers racing in a lake, sometimes set against a pristine backdrop like at Elk Lake in Victoria, Canada. But a close-up shot shows a 10k race is anything but clean. It is a swimming bullfight, as competitors are in close proximity, creating treacherous currents and grappling with each other, which can lead to disqualification. Many swimmers lather grease on their ankles so their opponents' hands will slip off.
Sutton has been battle-tested in and out of the water. Her record for different residences reads like a resume: because her father, David, is in the Air Force, she has moved numerous times. Born at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif., she has also lived in Alabama, Nebraska, Colorado, Virginia and three other cities in California. When she was nine, her family didn't hear from the father, a former college football player, for hours on 9/11 while he was working in the Pentagon. They later found out he had been evacuated.
Five years later competing in her 10k debut, Sutton experienced her own shock -- not only by finishing first. Her victory was slowed down by having her goggles ripped off and waiting for new ones, causing her to have a two-minute delay, then ending up in a field of jelly fish and getting stung all over her body. "Chloe has lost her share of important races along the way, but it is amazing to me that she always got back in the water more determined," Wendy says.
These days, Sutton talks to large groups of adults and children about her on-the-go journey and swimming success stories. With all her traveling and intense training schedule, which consists of swimming 10-15,000 yards six days a week, running and abdominal exercises, Sutton enrolled in a homeschooling curriculum called the University of Nebraska Independent Study Program. She plans to graduate from high school in 2010.
For now, it's all about the Olympics. Sutton, her teammates and coaches (Bill Rose is the women's open water coach) left for Singapore before heading to Beijing to complete training. Although there is the pollution problem in the Forbidden City, Sutton is not concerned with how the outdoor event may affect her breathing, or anything else for that matter. During the test event in May, she didn't think the air quality was as bad as people were describing it. Before she gets into position along the race's starting rope in Beijing, Sutton, who's a strong Christian and prays before every race, will ready into position. Her parents and brother, Colin, who will be watching back home, know they'll be granting her wishes in spirit. "Swimming has always been the thing I've loved," Sutton says. "Making it to the Olympics, and beyond, has been the one thing that I have basically dedicated my life to."
Whether she comes home with a medal the same color as the balloon is still up in the air.