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Overcome with tears of joy

Valrico's Brooke Bennett washes away frustration by winning 400 gold.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Brooke Bennett, not known for being emotional, rises out of the pool showing her excitement on seeing her time posted on the scoreboard.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000


SYDNEY, Australia -- How silly they must have felt when it was all over. When they got a good look at the one they feared. The one they were afraid to challenge. The one who just did a number on their collective dreams.

How silly her opponents must have felt when they saw Brooke Bennett bawling beside them in the Olympic swimming pool.

There's your tough girl. Your 126-pound bully. She is crying so hard now that the words stick in her throat when she tries to speak.

Bennett took on the world Sunday morning and lived to dance on the pool deck afterward. The Valrico swimmer won the 400-meter freestyle for her second Olympic gold medal, following up her 800-meter swim in Atlanta in 1996.

An overwhelming favorite to repeat in the 800 this week, Bennett could be the only U.S. female swimmer with two individual golds at the Games.

"Right now I'm on Cloud 12. I am so above Cloud 9," Bennett said. "I'm actually very excited now to do my 800."

This is what swimming people talk about when they discuss Bennett. Not her speed, because she is far from being a sprinter. Not her stroke, though she is technically sound. They talk about her grit. About the way this impish 20-year-old turns into Janet Reno in a Speedo when it comes to racing.

Bennett had no business winning the 400 free. She finished second to Diana Munz barely a month ago at the Olympic trials. Her personal best was still a half-second slower than what Germany's Hannah Stockbauer swam this year. Bennett did not win the 400 free at the last world championships and did not even qualify for it for Atlanta.

Yet she was the one who chose how Sunday's race would be won. Knowing she cannot sprint as well as her opponents over the final 50 meters, Bennett challenged them to keep up with her for the first 350.

She was the first across the 50-meter pool and never lost the lead.

"That's her best race. She gets out and challenges people and tells people, "This is my race, you're going to have to beat me. Who wants to hurt as much as I can hurt?' " said Peter Banks, Bennett's longtime coach with the Brandon Blue Wave and an assistant on the Olympic staff. "That's what she can do. Her pain tolerance is pretty high."

Because she does not have a tremendous kick at the end, Bennett chooses to race at maximum level the entire distance. Her first 50-meter split, excluding the dive, was 30.73 seconds. She went 30.76 in her final one.

"Everybody in the field has a background of having extra speed at the end," Bennett said. "I knew to win the race, I had to be out there in front and have enough room so they were not going to be able to catch me. I had to swim the smartest race I've ever swam."

And when it was over, the mystique was shattered. Gone was the cocky teenager who predicted the decline of Janet Evans in 1996. Gone was the cool facade that has punctuated her career.

This was a Bennett no one had seen. A side even Bennett was unsure she had. Ahead of the field by 1.27 seconds, Bennett knew she had the gold when she hit the wall. And still she was overcome with emotion when she turned to the scoreboard and realized she had a personal best of 4 minutes, 5.80 seconds.

Her time is the fifth-fastest in history and the best by an American since Evans swam 4:04.53 in 1989.

She began to sob. She accepted congratulations and sobbed some more. Munz, who came from behind to finish second and give the United States a 1-2 punch, swam over two lanes and hugged her rival. And Bennett continued to cry.

"Typically she's not an emotional person," Banks said. "I think it was four years of wanting to be there. Two years ago she got beat by the Chinese girl (Chen Yan) at the world championships. I think she was feeling that she hasn't really had a good (400) at the top level.

"It all let loose on her tonight."

As a 16-year-old schoolgirl in '96, Bennett kept her cool throughout the 800-meter victory and medal ceremony. Now, at 20, with her own home, a fat bank account and growing celebrity, Bennett's calm facade was shattered.

"I don't think I have ever shown that much emotion," Bennett said. "At 16, I didn't have a clue what to do. I didn't know how to hold myself, how to carry myself, how to show emotion. I think this was just something that was boiled up inside of me for so long."

When she stepped up on the medal stand Sunday morning, Bennett saw a completely new view of the world. With the knowledge of the years behind her, she knew just how difficult and precious the moment was.

Struggling to keep from crying, she gazed across the aquatics center, occasionally grinning when seeing her image on the stadium screen.

When the anthem was completed, Bennett and Munz took a trip around the center, waving, shouting and even breaking into a dance when Shania Twain's Man! I Feel Like a Woman! was played on the public address system.

"It was exciting," she said. "It was a good song, and we just did the jig."

For months Bennett has been coy about her plans beyond the 2000 Games. Sunday, she virtually announced she will be back in 2004.

She began her career chasing Evans in the 800 free, and now Bennett could be chasing Evans in swimming lore. Competing in three Olympic Games between 1988 and 1996, Evans won four golds and one silver in 400- and 800-meter events to be recognized as America's greatest distance swimmer.

If Bennett wins the 800 this week, she will have three golds of her own with the possibility of competing in the Athens Olympics in 2004. Bennett, about one year younger than Evans was at her second Olympics, also has moved closer to Evans' world record of 4:03.85 in the 400 that has stood for 12 years.

"I just feel I have so much to accomplish now. I could go on for another four years. Going 4:05, that 4:03 now looks a lot closer," Bennett said. "I feel that is definitely within my reach."

She has not been in the same pool with Bennett in about four years, but perhaps Evans has reason to fear her old rival.

Heaven knows, the rest of the world's distance swimmers do.

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