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Bennett has final shot Tuesday

7/12/2004

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.