By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; 1:19 AM
IRVINE, CALIF. - Drama and intrigue blanketed the women's 400-meter freestyle competition Friday at the Pan Pacific Championships, an event in which one of the night's biggest winners did not even jump in the pool.
Only two U.S. women competed in the night's final. But a total of four Americans had a huge stake in the outcome: A spot in next year's world championship meet in Shanghai.
In the end, Chloe Sutton, who trained for two years in McLean, and Towson's Katie Hoff - who watched from the stands in a Team USA tank top and sunglasses - earned those spots.
Sutton got the gold with her finish in 4 minutes 5.19 seconds. Hoff stayed dry and still got a world championship slot. Kate Ziegler of Great Falls put up a blazing time, the second-fastest of the night (4:05.52) - but got nothing out of it. She did not win the silver medal because she had only managed to qualify for the evening's consolation final; she watched the final from edge of the pool.
To make matters worse, she missed out on a world championship slot because her time was a mere .02 of a second too slow. "It hurts," she said. "It's frustrating. But I'm excited to see Katie on the team."
Hoff, the reigning Olympic silver medal winner in the event, had swum poorly in the morning heats, surprisingly failing to advance to the final or consolation final after dominating the event at the U.S. championships.
That left her hoping that the Americans competing, Ziegler in the consolation final and Sutton and Allison Schmitt in the final, would win - but with slower times than she managed in the U.S. championships, when she went 4:05.50.
If her time stood up, she would represent the United States in the event in Shanghai.
"It was so nerve-racking," Hoff said. "I knew it was going to be close. I didn't know it was going to be two-hundredths close."
Here's how it all went down: Ziegler, who like Hoff, had no chance to claim a medal or Pan Pacifics title, led off the night with a stunner. She put out a time that surpassed her effort in the morning by more than three seconds.
It seemed likely that she had laid down a time neither Sutton, who until last year was an open-water specialist and who finished second earlier in the week to Ziegler in the 800, nor Schmitt, a 200 specialist, could touch.
"I wish I could have been in the final, because I think I could have gone [even] faster" with a stronger field, Ziegler said. "It's a lesson learned."
For Sutton and Schmitt, the final wasn't a matter of, just win, baby. They had to go fast, too. Sutton did.
She fended off challenges from Australia's Katie Goldman, who finished second in 4:05.84 - slower than Ziegler swam - and Blair Evans, who came home in 4:06.36. Schmitt got fourth with her time of 4:06.73.
"I couldn't have asked for anything more," said Sutton, who will compete in Sunday's open-water 10-kilometer race. "I was a hardcore open-water swimmer; I couldn't do anything under 10K two years ago. I'm learning to handle my nerves. . . . These races just have so much at stake."
When the result registered, Ziegler spun around with disappointment. But she smiled later when talking about how close she had come.
"Getting another medal for the U.S. would have been nice, but really, at this meet, I think a lot of people are racing to get on the worlds team," Ziegler said. "I would have liked to do that, too - to say the least."
Hoff had failed to advance to Friday's final when she was outraced to wall in her morning heat by Ziegler. Her time of 4:08.93 seconds was the fifth-fastest Friday morning, but it was surpassed by Sutton (4:07.64), Schmitt (4:08.47) and Ziegler (4:08.63). At this meet, only two swimmers from each nation can take part in the eight-person final.
Though Hoff, who grew up in Towson, secured a spot on next summer's world championship team as a member of the 4x200 freestyle relay, she desperately wanted to compete in Shanghai in what had been one of her signature events.
She climbed out of the stands shortly after the race, grinning with relief.
"I just stopped shaking," she said. "I'm extremely excited."