LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Brooke Bennett succeeded Janet Evans as America's premier distance swimmer eight years ago. Now it appears Bennett's reign in the grueling freestyle races is nearing an end.
The bubbly blonde who sports four tattoos and a pierced nose is in danger of not making her third Olympic team, three years after having surgery on both shoulders.
The two-time defending Olympic champion in the 800-meter freestyle barely made Tuesday night's final at the trials, and clearly has lost the dominance she had before the operations in 2001.
"She didn't feel good, we're not sure why," her coach, Peter Banks, said Monday. "She didn't die, she just needs to have the confidence to be a little more aggressive."
Bennett qualified seventh for the eight-woman final, making it unlikely she will earn a trip to Athens. Her preliminary time of 8 minutes, 37.52 seconds was 17.85 seconds slower than her winning time in Sydney four years ago.
"She's disappointed and mad right now," Banks said. "In some ways, that's a good thing for Brooke, maybe she can use that in a positive way."
She has before.
At the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials, Bennett was 9 seconds faster in the 800 free final than her prelim time. At Sydney, she swept the 400 and 800 freestyle events, becoming the only American female swimmer to win two individual golds.
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, she won the 800 free, continuing a tradition of U.S. dominance that began with Debbie Meyer in 1968. American women have won the event seven of the nine times it's been contested at the Olympics. Evans (in 1988 and 1992) and Bennett are the only women to win consecutive Olympic titles.
At 24, Bennett is the oldest swimmer in the race. Five of the other finalists are teenagers, ranging from 16-year-old Kate Ziegler to 19-year-old Kalyn Keller, the fastest qualifier in 8:31.55.
"I'm going to have the first-timers coming up and trying to take my spot," Bennett said last week. "I feel very determined. I don't allow myself to think of what-ifs. I see myself going for a third gold medal in the 800."
Her mood was decidedly different Monday. Clearly perturbed, Bennett wouldn't even speak with reporters after the prelims.
"I wish her all the luck," said Kaitlin Sandeno, who will be going for her fourth individual Olympic berth in the 800 free. "She's done some amazing things in her career."
Bennett will be relegated to a less desirable outside lane for the second time at the trials.
She and Diana Munz, the gold and silver medalists in the 400 free from Sydney, were stuck in the far outside lanes for that event Thursday. Bennett finished next-to-last, while Munz also missed a spot on the team by touching the wall third.
"It's upsetting, sad," Bennett said after the 400. "The trials are the most unpredictable meet you'll ever go to. It's 10 times harder than standing on the blocks at the Olympic Games."
Bennett surprised Banks and many of her fellow swimmers by coming back at all.
In November 2001, she had operations on both shoulders within a month of each other because the capsules inside had lost all stability. The result? Every stroke caused hemorrhaging and inflammation, making her life miserable.
The recovery was equally tough. Bennett couldn't apply deodorant by herself, pull her long hair back, or lift her arms to put on a T-shirt.
"I've gone through a lot of pain the last two years," she said. "I haven't been the name out there that I was the previous six years. I was used to always seeing my name in the top 10 in world records. I've had to work my way back up from nothing."
In 2002, Bennett slipped into the pool after being cleared by doctors to swim her first lap and froze.
"I remember going under water to push off and I came up and said, 'I'm not ready yet,' " she said. "I was scared to take my first stroke."
She held on to the edge of the wall and stared at the 50 meters ahead of her. Eventually, Bennett put her head down and did a lap.
"I thought she would stop swimming," Banks said. "I was surprised when she made the choice to come back. You're never guaranteed of the outcome."
In the summer of 2002, she competed in her first meet since the operations. Banks forced her into the water, telling Bennett, "Let's either do it or forget about it. Let's pack our bags and go home."
Bennett competed, but finished last in her 400 free heat. "I was crying before I swam," she said.
As recently as 1½ years ago, Bennett couldn't break 9 minutes in the 800 free. Her personal best is 8:19.67.
"There were some bad days," she said. "I had to be mentally tough to get through."
Since then, Banks had to push her back into the pool several times. Not literally, but Bennett's confidence has wavered since she was the brash teenager who chased Evans into retirement.
Now, Bennett is the one being passed by younger swimmers.
"It may not happen the way we want it to, but I'm never disappointed in anything she does," Banks said. "The effort level is always the same."
Bennett still has tendinitis in her shoulders and lives on ice and aspirin. She has 4-inch scars in the creases of her armpits from the operations.
"It's amazing she did come back," said Munz, who qualified second for the 800 final. "She has a great background. She doesn't have to come back. It just shows her love for swimming."
Before the trials, Bennett couldn't envision giving up on swimming.
"I came here to prove to myself that you can come back from two major shoulder surgeries," she said.
Or maybe it's farewell.
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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