Sunday, January 20, 2008

Top American Female Open Water Swimmers

Swimming Smart Leads to Victory

Micha Burden, originally from Alaska and currently training in Mission Viejo, California, upset a stellar field of open water stars to win the USA Swimming Open Water World Championship Trials on Saturday, October 20 in Miromar Lakes, Florida. Kirsten Groome, 17 of First Colony Swim Team, just edged out Chloe Sutton, also of Mission Viejo Nadadores, to take second. Both Micha and Kirsten will represent the US in the 10K Olympic selection meet in Seville, Spain in late April 2008 with Chloe as the alternate. The top 10 swimmers in the Seville Olympic meet will be chosen to participate in the 10K Marathon Swim at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in August.

The 10K race between the best 20 open water swimmers in the U.S. started just before 9 am until cloudy skies. The water temperature was nearly 85° with an air temperature of 82°F and 74% humidity. "It was very hot out there and hydration is very important," said Dave Thomas, Sport Development official with USA Swimming. "But this will be very similar to the weather and swimming conditions in Seville and in Beijing."

The course was a very well-marked 10K loop course in Lake Como, a man-made lake near Ft. Myers. The race included 4 loops nearly 2.5K in length with a special 400+ meter straightaway sprint to the finish chute off the main course. There were small white directional buoys every 10 meters throughout the loop course, with the ends of the loop course marked by large orange turn buoys. In all, the swimmers had to navigate around 24 turn buoys before heading to the 400-meter finish straightaway.

The 20 female Olympic aspirants ranged in ages from 14-year-old Eva Fabian of Greenwood Memorial Swim Club in Massachusetts, to former four-year Stanford All-American, Lisa Hazen at 43. Eva swam exceedingly well in placing sixth in 2 hours 3 minutes and 56 seconds, while Lisa Hazen finished 17th.

But, right from the start, the race belonged to Micha, Kirsten, Chloe and 2004 Olympian Kalyn Keller. The foursome quickly distanced themselves from the rest of the field and steadily opened up an ever-increasing gap throughout the race.

50 meters from the start, Chloe took control of the race with Kirsten, Micha and Kalyn falling right in line behind her, utilizing her draft to their advantage. "I knew they (Chloe, Kirsten and Kalyn) were the ones to watch for and I knew they would take the lead," said Micha after the race. "I just took one lap at a time and wanted to be able to counter their moves." The former Huntington Beach lifeguard obviously knew what she was doing for she was never more than a foot off of either Chloe or Kirsten, drafting and bidding her time.

The foursome completed the first 2.5K loop in 29:44 where it was clearly became a four-person race. Due to the exceedingly warm water and weather conditions, hydration became an important factor in the race. A series of three floating pontoons were set right off the race course where the swimmers' teammates and coaches were well-positioned to hand them water, Gatorade and gel packs. Stroke for stroke, kilometer after kilometer, the four competitors continued swimming at a punishing, but steady pace.

"I only had a whistle at the girls once," said Sid Cassidy, the head referee. "It was on the first loop and Kirsten and Micha were just bumping a little too much. I didn't give them a (yellow-card) warning, but only wanted them to separate a little bit. After that, the race was fair'"
Throughout the race, the four swimmers had the following stroke counts (strokes per minutes, count taken approximately every 15 minutes):

Micha Burden: 40, 39, 39, 41, 40, 40, 40, 40
Kirsten Groome: 46, 47, 46, 47, 46, 45, 44, 47
Chloe Sutton: 40, 43, 46, 44, 43, 43, 43, 44
Kalyn Keller: 45, 43, 41, 42, 42, 40, 45, 41

Despite the jockeying for positioning and the boat traffic kicking up exhaust, the swimmers were relatively consistent in their stroke cycles. But, nothing was as consistent as the ability for Micha to draft off of either Chloe or Kirsten. Chloe was estimated to lead the pack for nearly 70% of the first 4 loops with Kirsten pulling the train for 20%. The remaining 10% of the time, either Chloe or Kirsten were making a move towards first, or were falling back to take advantage of the slight stream.

But, whether it was loop #1, #2, #3 or #4, Micha was always right there, no further back than a few inches, or at most one foot, off of her competitors who were creating advantageous wakes and fast water for her. "You can save as much as 20% energy by drafting in the position that Micha is doing," observed Dave Thomas.

The swimmers finished loop #2 in 30:06 as they continued to battle each other. Around the second loop, though, Chloe missed a feed and had to adjust. Kalyn, on the other hand, had some excellent feeds from her coach, John Urbanchek from Club Wolverine. Kirsten and Micha continued with their plans. "I knew Chloe, Kirsten and Kalyn were going to go out strong. I just wanted to have a little extra at the end."

Loop #3 continued in much of the same manner as the first 5K: Chloe in first, Kirsten in second, Micha in third and Kalyn in fourth, with an occasional change in the lead position between Chloe and Kirsten. With so much at stake, no one was about to give an inch. Numerous times the competitors hit hands or bumped, but only one time during the first loop did head referee Sid Cassidy whistle and warn the competitors to separate.

Rick Walker, a long-time USA National Open Water Team Coach, and Dave Thomas, continued a race commentary from the lead boat throughout the race. This enabled the parents, coaches, teammates and fans who lined the edge of the lake to have a better understanding of the relative positioning of the top swimmers. As the athletes rounded the start area and feeding pontoons after every loop, they were greeted by cheer from their teammates, coaches, parents and fans. Other than that, the only sounds were the steady, smooth arm strokes of the athletes pushing themselves around the 10K course.

By the third loop, the rain had stopped and beautiful rainbows could be seen over the course. Obviously, something special was about to unfold in the final loop. The four girls had swum 7.5K, all at each other's heels or within 1 stroke of each other. Knowledgeable fans assumed that the race would come down to a sprint between Chloe, one of the world's hottest open water swimmers over the past summer, Kirsten Groome, another national open water champion and recent winner of a FINA World Cup 10K race, and Kalyn, the well-known silver medalist at the 2007 World Championships. All three are accomplished pool swimmers with the requisite speed and endurance to compete - and beat - the world's best open water swimmers from Europe, Australia and South America.

But, it was to be unassuming and unheralded Micha's day.

Coming into the final loop, with a little more than 2 kilometers to go, the race could not be more tactical. Who was going to make a move and when? Chloe was on a roll, but she had led the group for much of the race. Kirsten has the speed, but she had also pulled along her competitors for much of the race. Kalyn, always a dangerous threat, was looming just behind everyone and well-poised to make her move. The spectators waited and wondered: who would bring it home the best?

With less than 2K to go, Micha pulled around Kirsten and started swimming stroke-for-stroke with Chloe in first as she picked up her kick. Kirsten, who trains in Shreveport, Louisiana, stayed right on their heels. Drafting, an acquired skill in open water swimming, was nothing new to these competitors who are all well-schooled in the art. The pace picked up and the threesome surprisingly started to extend their lead over Kalyn. With 1.5K to go, it was Mission Viejo 1-2, but it was still really anyone's race, including Kalyn who had dropped off about 5 meters from Chloe and Micha.

With a 1K to go, Chloe, Micha and Kirsten rounded the final 3 turn buoys as close as physically possible, but Chloe on the inside track. They were so close that they would occasionally - and inadvertently - hit one other. Both Chloe and Micha went around the first buoy cleanly with Kirsten right at their heels. All three cleared the second turn buoy well, but then Chloe and Micha both took a sharper turn than necessary. Once they realized their error after a few strokes, they slammed into one another, arms interlocked. Both came to a sudden standstill, nearly vertical in the water.

"I was really mad," recalled Micha. "But, I couldn't get angry and had to stay calm." Meanwhile, Kirsten immediately took the lead, but Chloe recovered quickly and they exited the final turn buoy swimming together.

Micha later recalled, "I needed to keep my strokes long and stay on their feet. I wanted to be on the inside (going into the final sprint straightaway). Over the last two weeks. I wrote out my strategy and read it over every day. This is what I was expecting and I couldn't let this bother me."

With 600 meters to go, Micha recovered and moved into a three-way tie for first with Chloe and Kirsten. Kalyn had dropped off the pace and it was clear that the top 2 spots would go to these 3 competitors.

With 500 meters to go, Micha continued her powerful kick and put on a spurt that could not be matched by either Chloe or Kirsten. "She looks strong - look at her kick," observed Rick Walker. Sid Cassidy said, "She has this great kick that was so powerful underwater."

Micha remembered, "After I settled down, I decided to make a move." And, her move was indeed spectacular. With 400 meters to go, she had built a lead of at least 5 meters...and it was growing with every stroke. "She really picked up her kick and looked strong out there," said Paul Asmuth who was on the head referee boat and was instrumental in helping organize a great event along with Jay Thomas, Gregg Cross and a hospitable group of dedicated volunteers.

With 200 meters to go, Micha's kick and sprint were clearly going to propel her to victory. But, as much as her aerobic conditioning was part of her victory, her level-headed race strategy and drafting enabled her to out-sprint her competition.

Throughout the first 8K, she was always swimming totally within someone's draft and conserving energy. When she decided to make her move, she did - and it was her competition that was unable to react.

As Micha pulled to victory, the race for the second spot on the US team was up for grabs. Chloe and Kirsten were sprinting and kicking as best they could for that coveted Olympic selection spot the final 600 meters. They were essentially even, stroke-for-stroke, as the crowd waited in anticipation. Kirsten put her head down and beat Chloe by a body length.

"I didn't expect the lead to change so much throughout the race," said Kirsten. "I made a move at the end and it feels great to qualify. I expect the Americans will do well in Seville."

As she looked back on her victory, Micha said with a radiant smile, "I took one lap at a time. I wanted to be able to make a move, and to be able to counter any move the other competitors made. Sure we ran into one another, but you have to be prepared for that (in open water swimming). Then, I made a run for it..."

Micha's run basically started less than 2 years ago when she was swimming occasionally for a masters program in Huntington Beach and studying to be a nurse after graduation from Cal-Berkeley.

Encouraged to take up open water swimming seriously, Micha decided to train under Bill Rose at Mission Viejo. Slowly, but steadily, Micha got into shape and traveled the world, from San Francisco to Dubai, in search of the best open water competition she could find. And her journey is not over.

Together with Kirsten and her male colleagues who will be selected tomorrow on the same course, the road to Beijing goes through Seville.

The final results of the race are:
1. Micha Burden (26), Mission Viejo Nadadores, 2:00:47.48
2. Kirsten Groome (17), First Colony Swim Team, 2:01:05.43
3. Chloe Sutton (15), Mission Viejo Nadadores, 2:01:09.02
4. Kalyn Keller (22), Club Wolverine, 2:01:42.15
5. Christine Jennings (20), Minnesota Aquatics, 2:03:54.94
6. Eva Fabian (14), Greenwood Memorial Swim Club, 2:03:56.10
7. Whitney Sprague (20), North Carolina Aquatic Club, 2:04:23.91
8. Katelyn Martin (17), Magnus Aquatic Club, 2:05:26.76
9. Erica Rose (25), unattached, 2:06:30.74
10. Jessica Witt (20), Nova of Virginia Aquatics, 2:06:46.47
11. Alicia Mathieu (15), SoNoCo Swim Club, 2:06:47.15
12. Caitlin Warner (20), Rice Aquatics, 2:07:34.16
13. Elizabeth Stowe (21), unattached, 2:10:12.60
14. Kelly Baird (15), Winston-Salem YMCA, 2:12:47.86
15. Nicole Vernon (14), Delaware Swim Team, 2:13:04.45
16. Leah Gingrich (17), WSY Swimming, 2:14:24.78
17. Lisa Hazen (43), unattached, 2:18:17.72
18. Courtney Weigand (17), North Coast Aquatics, 2:19:11.20
19. Lauren Bailey (22), Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics, DNF
20. Brittany Massengale (22), Rice Aquatics, DNF

Submitted from the lead boat, posted on and

Copyright © 2008 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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