It's 4 a.m. Interstate 66 and Route 29 heading into town haven't even approached gridlock yet. But Justin Caron is on the road, making the sleepy drive from Catlett in southeastern Fauquier County to get to swim practice at Chantilly Country Club by 5:30.

Caron recently graduated from Paul VI High School in Fairfax, where he went undefeated his senior year and was named All-Met. He is swimming this summer for Snowbird Aquatics, a private club that prepares swimmers to compete in premier events such as the national championships and the Olympics.

While summer nights often extend well into the early morning for new graduates, the night has to end early for Caron so he gets enough sleep to get up at 3:30 a.m.

Well, usually.

"Sometimes I pull all-nighters and pay for it the next day," Caron said. "Swimming limits what I can do during the week late at night, but I do more than I probably should."

Caron said he sometimes will stay at a teammate's house at night to be a little closer to practice, but when he doesn't, the 45-minute drive in the dark hits him hard.

"I try to be humanistic, especially in his situation because he has to drive so far," said his coach at Snowbird, Mike Pliuskaitis. "These kids know what time-management is -- they have to because they know I'm going to kill 'em the next morning," he joked.

Pliuskaitis has quite a resume and has helped build Caron into one the area's best swimmers. Pliuskaitis coached the Canadian national team for five years and was named Canadian coach of the year in 1995.

But even though the talent and raw skill are all there for Caron, the swimmer and his coach admit some trips to the weight room might be in order.

"I eat six meals a day, and I can't gain weight. I guess my metabolism is too high," said Caron, who is a lanky 6 feet 3, 170 pounds. "I'm trying, believe me."

But for Caron, all the hard work could soon pay off. He made an appearance at nationals last year, going up against seasoned college swimmers while he was still fretting over the SATs. He finished 23rd out of about 35 swimmers in the 200 breaststroke and 27th in the 100 breast event.

When he heads to this year's nationals in Minneapolis during the first week of August, Caron will compete in both the breaststroke events again and probably the 200 individual medley and 50 freestyle as well.

After he adds some bulk, both Pliuskaitis and his former coach at Paul VI, Joe Gesker, said he has a legitimate shot at the 2004 Olympic team.

"If we can put 20 pounds of muscle on him, he's golden. But we need some help from Mother Nature," Pliuskaitis said. "He's got the size, he just needs the beef -- it's sort of a genetics contest. Once he fills into a man's body, he'll only get quicker."

Caron also will get a chance to increase his speed when he starts this fall at Auburn, one of the best collegiate swimming programs in the nation. But Auburn is the home of NCAA 200 breaststroke champion Dave Dennison, and Caron knows he has his work cut out for him.

"It's going to be a huge adjustment, and I'm probably going to be dead for two months," he said. "But I'm really excited to get a chance to swim with those guys down there."

CAPTION: Justin Caron may have the talent to become an Olympic swimmer, but he and his coaches say the 6-foot-3, 170-pound soon-to-be freshman at Auburn needs to bulk up to have a realistic chance.