Sara “Kew” Clayton has been a swimmer for about eight years, and the backstroke has always been her favorite swimming stroke. It’s the only stroke that doesn’t require a special breathing technique, and it widens the world. When Clayton swims the backstroke, her eyes face the sky, allowing her to breathe easy and gauge her surroundings.
Another reason she likes the backstroke: she’s incredibly good at it.
She’s incredibly good at many strokes now. Strides in the individual medley (IM), especially the butterfly, led to a Times-News girls swimmer of the year honor for the sophomore in Idaho’s first state-sanctioned swimming season.
Clayton’s middle name is Haskew, which derives from her grandmother’s maiden name. Early in her life, family and friends used name to create the nickname, Kew. She’s gone by Kew for most of her life.
For about as long as Clayton has gone by that nickname, she’s been a swimmer.
“I’ve always had this pull to the water,” she said. “My parents couldn’t get me out of it once they put me in.”
Clayton spent most of her childhood in Park City, Utah, and that’s where she began her competitive swimming career. She was a third grader who was instantly drawn to the backstroke, and she’s been serious about the sport ever since.
In sixth grade, Clayton moved to Hailey, and she immediately joined the Sun Valley 5B swimming club, coached by veteran Brian Gallagher. The coach of 30-plus years has been around some great swimmers, and he’s not willing to put Clayton on the top tier just yet. But she’s impressed him since day one in Hailey.
“She loves swimming, she takes it seriously, she trains hard, she really pushes herself,” Gallagher said. “She’s very competitive, but she gets along with everybody. She’s not so singular.”
Ben Parker, Wood River’s first-year head swim coach, agreed. Clayton is a bright, fun-loving presence for the Wolverines, and her personality blossomed this season thanks to a new environment.
Swimming received a boost in legitimacy when it joined the other 11 sports that are sanctioned by the Idaho High School Activities Association. It also gained some logistical benefits.
Team buses, a mandatory number of practices and other factors led to more team unity than last season, Clayton said, when Wood River swimmers would rarely get opportunities to interact outside of the meets. This year, they almost had no choice, and the Wolverines gelled.
“We were kind of inseparable as a team,” she said.
School spirit began to congregate more around the swim team than in years past, as well.
“The atmosphere at the meets was way different. People were always there, cheering for their teams,” Clayton said. “It was a more fun experience this year.”
Clayton won 10 of the 16 individual events she competed in this past fall, according to Parker. She finished in the top four every time except for at the state tournament, where she placed 12th in the IM and 15th in the butterfly.
While backstroke still tops the list of favorite strokes, Clayton has grown increasingly fond of the butterfly, which has provided a fresh, fun challenge.
Clayton hopes to break some school records, and she’d love to swim in college. But she knows her career is still in the early stages.
“I don’t think she’s come to her ceiling yet,” Parker said.