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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 June 2007, 08:52 GMT 09:52 UK
Open water warrior
Open water start
The field dives bravely into Port Philip Bay's jellyfish-infested waters

By Matt Slater

The first time Cassie Patten raced in an open water event in the sea she got lost, suffered terrible seasickness and had layers of skin peel off her tongue afterwards because of the saltwater.

The next time she took part in a big race in the sea, it was cold, it rained and she got badly stung by jellyfish. But she also earned a World Championships silver medal.

For somebody who moved up from swimming 800m races in the pool to 10km marathons in open water only nine months before, that's not bad.

But then Patten, the only girl on her school football team and a former area judo champion, has always been a fighter.

"I hate to lose. I'm not a bad loser but I hate to lose," she said when I asked her about her motivation for her gutsy World Championships swim in Melbourne in March.

I didn't just get stung by a jellyfish; gosh, that would have been heaven if I had just been stung by one

Cassie Patten
It is that intensity of purpose that has propelled Patten from the paddling pool of British Swimming's plans to the highboard of the country's hopes for success in Beijing, where open water swimming will make its Olympic debut.

And perhaps the only person not surprised by this sea change is Patten herself.

"We had a girls meeting on the Gold Coast a couple of days before we moved to Melbourne," she recalled, "and Ben Titley, the head coach, asked us to stand up and say what we wanted from the meet.

"Everybody was a bit bashful and said things like 'I want to have fun' or 'I want to support the team'.

"The only two who stood up and said 'I want to win a medal and prove myself' were me and Kirsty Balfour (the only other British woman to win a medal in Melbourne). Since then I've been thinking about that and it just can't be a coincidence."

Sharron Davies, the BBC's swimming presenter and former Olympic medallist, agrees.

Like many observers, Davies was disappointed by the well-funded team's Melbourne haul of two silvers and three bronzes, and she was quick to identify a lack of confidence as Team GB's biggest failing.

"The Brits are as good as others but they just do not seem to believe it," Davies wrote in her review of the World Championships.

Patten is clearly an exception to that rule.

"I told my coach the day before the race that I probably wouldn't be very communicative the next day," said Patten.

"All I could think about was getting a medal. I was very disappointed about what had happened in Naples the year before. I didn't think I had achieved everything I could."

Remembering her sea race debut in the Italian city in a cheerfully matter-of-fact manner, she said: "When I got there it looked calm and I thought it was going to be a lovely swim.

"But once I got out there it was horrible. The swell was about two or three foot.

Larisa Ilchenko beats Cassie Patten to the buzzer
After two hours of racing, only two seconds separated the top three
"It was horrible and can be very disorientating. At one point I lost the pack. I did the last two and half kilometres on my own, being sick, way off course.

"My dad was watching through binoculars from the shore and he was worried I was just going to swim off in the wrong direction."

An 800m specialist, Patten was advised to try open water when it seemed her progress in the pool was stalling.

Aged 19 and struggling to achieve the times needed to secure selection for the big events, and therefore funding, she was open to suggestion, particularly as the open water 10km event was now on the Olympic programme.

It was not long before the move outdoors started to pay dividends and a victory in a 10km race in London's Royal Albert Docks suggested a major breakthrough was not too far off.

The shame of it for Patten is that when that breakthrough came it got lost amid the inquest that followed the team's overall display down under.

Not that she has been complaining. The Cornwall-born star is more concerned people now think of her more as an open water swimmer than an 800m specialist.

And she is right to be miffed. A week after claiming silver in Port Philip Bay, she won 800m gold at the British Championships.

Cassie Patten reacts to just missing out on gold in Melbourne
Cold, tired and stung, Patten cannot believe how close she was to gold
That performance prompted Patten to reassess her goals. Racing both in the pool and the man-made lake in Beijing is now an achievable target.

But that British title was won whilst the country's top 800m swimmers were still in Australia, so Patten, now 20, is under no illusions as to the size of her task in attempting to double up in 2008.

She is also aware that her hopes of a medal remain strongest in her newer event, even though the Russian who beat her in March, the 18-year-old Larisa Ilchenko, is only going to get stronger.

"The big mistake I made in Melbourne is that I looked up too much coming into the finish. She kept her head down for a minute at a time whereas I was looking up every 15 seconds," said Patten, whose 800m PB is quicker than the Russian's.

"After the race she said I was the toughest competitor she had ever swam against because I wouldn't let her go," said Patten. "I was really flattered. Normally she goes for it and everybody thinks she's going to win so nobody goes with her.

Some of the girls were scared but I thought there was no way a shark was going to come near 20 girls and loads of boats

Cassie Patten
"But I was there, even though my body was screaming 'what are you doing to me?'"

With every competitor suffering from fatigue and jellyfish stings, the scenes after the race were like something from the movie Jaws - lots of distraught swimmers being helped out of the water.

"I didn't just get stung by a jellyfish; gosh, that would have been heaven if I had just been stung by one," said Patten.

"In training I saw a few but they were about two metres down. But on the day of the race, because the tide and wind had changed, they were all over the course.

"We were all standing on the start pontoon and could see the jellyfish where we were about to dive.

"I'm quite mentally tough so I think there were a lot of other girls more affected by it than me. I thought if I'm getting stung everybody else is getting stung.

"But the second time I got stung was awful. The waves and the other swimmers were flipping the jellyfish over and I swam straight into one that got the underside of my arm, my armpit and all over my back.

"I was shouting swear words into the water and the swimmer beside me was just looking at me like I was crazy."

Cassie Patten
Patten's medal was a surprise but expectations are higher for 2008
Some would say they were all crazy but nobody would question Patten's assertion that she is "quite mentally tough".

Only a few months earlier she raced in an event only a mile down the beach from where a shark attack had occurred the day before.

"Some of the girls were scared but I thought there was no way a shark was going to come near 20 girls and loads of boats," she said as if that was the most obvious thing in the world for anybody to conclude.

The cold, jellyfish, sharks, whatever - nothing seems to perturb Patten.

And while she still harbours dreams of glory in the pool, you cannot help but think her combination of positive thinking, hard-as-nails pain threshold and reservoirs of stamina are best suited to the rigours of open water.

"If I had to swim for two hours in the pool I would be so bored," she admitted. "You only have tiles to look at.

"But in the sea or a lake you have the scenery to look at and all the other swimmers. You're thinking about what they're doing. The time goes so fast."

Only a very special competitor - a future Olympic champion, perhaps - could say that time flies when you're swimming 10km in cold, choppy, potentially painful water.

Patten sets twin targets for 2008
08 Jun 07 |  Swimming
Patten defies pain to earn silver
20 Mar 07 |  Swimming
Swimming calendar
17 Oct 00 |  Swimming


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