On top of the world, but down to earth

Brooke Bennett, Olympic champion, comes accross as the girl next door  Credit: Al Bello/Allsport
BRANDON, Fla. Her application, sad to say, was a little light.

The young woman was applying for a part-time job as a sales clerk at a clothing store in the Brandon Towne Center.

Her last job? Swimming laps about 25 to 30 hours a week. Previous sales experience? None really, though she once sold the world on the idea she could beat Janet Evans. Any references? Nobody in the sales industry.

Brooke Bennett got the job anyway.

Not that she really needed the money. It was more to keep her busy because she missed the start of the school semester while she was competing somewhere what country was it again? at a swim meet.

Nor was she the least bit aware of it, but a mall job also completed a most Rockwellian portrait of the girl next door. Three dogs, a boyfriend, classes at the junior college, a cozy house with new wood floors, a flower bed, a tiny U.S. flag on the mailbox and a swing hanging from a tree in the yard. The only thing out of place is the Olympic gold medal. And she keeps that in a closet.

Bennett is about as normal as they come, which some might say is abnormal considering she was a child prodigy.

At 16, she won the gold medal in the 800 freestyle at the 1996 Olympics. She got $65,000 in prize money. She did commercials with a local Pontiac dealership in exchange for a new Firebird. She missed her high school graduation because she was at a meet in Europe. She had swimming-related endorsements and a parade in her honor in her hometown.

Yet she worked for months at the mall before co-workers knew who she was. If there is a pretentious urge in her body, she does an outstanding job of keeping it at bay.

"The best word to describe Brooke is 'unique,'" said Jeff Griggs, her boyfriend who completed a school for firefighters and is contemplating a career as a paramedic. "I've never met anyone like her. She is incredibly independent and demanding, but she also looks out for other people. My friends are amazed when they meet her because they have this image of what she must be like. And she is just so wonderful, they all love her to death. The initial shock of her being an Olympic champion lasts about three seconds because then you start to see her as this real person.

"I can't think of any other way to describe her. She's just Brooke."

The transition from a practice-at-all-costs teenager to an every-door-is-open champion is difficult; just turn on Court TV. A gold medal gymnast sued her parents and accused her father of a murder plot against her coach and another friend. A gold medal ice skater admitted she was an alcoholic before she could legally drink.

Bennett has had her moments, though less extreme. She rankled some on the pool deck in '96 when she openly predicted she would defeat Evans, who was the grand dame of swimming. Bennett was a bit precocious, something of a free spirit and unafraid to speak her mind.

She moved out of the family house after high school and admits she made a mistake or two along the way. Yet here she is, at 20, a top contender again at the dawn of a new Olympics.

Bennett has gone from a skinny teenager following instructions to a slender woman calling her shots.

"It's totally different not having mom or dad around saying, 'Come on, you've got to go, you've got practice.'" Bennett said. "If I wake up at 5 a.m. and I don't feel like going to practice, there is nobody there to tell me I have to go. That's a little different, having to push myself. I have my mom and my coach, but they're there to support me. Now, I have to take myself where I want to go. That makes this a little more special to me."

There is another reason 2000 could be more special for Bennett. She is hoping to accomplish more than she did in 1996.

Although she won the 800-meter free in Atlanta, she failed to qualify in the 400-meter free. This time, with the possibility of a spot on the 4x200 relay team, she believes three gold medals are possible. She won the 800 and 400 at last year's Pan Pacific Championships.

"To make the 400 will be very important to me because I missed it in '96," she said. "It was a fast heat and at 16 I wasn't as strong as I am now. Those girls took it out fast, and I just couldn't hang on at the end because I wasn't strong enough to do that yet."

Bennett has grown stronger, and tougher, in the ensuing years. She never doubted she would return for another Olympics but there was a time, around 1998, when she realized what it would take to get back.

Having chased Evans for so long, Bennett was trying to adjust to swimming with no target in front of her. Her body also was feeling the ravages of swimming 50 miles a week for most of her life. A shoulder injury had slowed her, her knees sometimes ached and she woke up one morning to realize she was no longer the world's best.

"After that summer, not swimming as well as I wanted, I really looked at swimming differently," Bennett said. "I realized how important it was to me, and how much I enjoyed being in that top spot. I stood back for a minute and saw what I was missing because I hadn't competed as well. I thought, 'I really don't like being back here, I like being up there.' So when I came back, I knew for the next two years it would be go-time.

"I think I have an extra fire burning now," she said. "I saw what my life could be like if I wasn't where I was now."

She did not like the idea of looking at her life without swimming. Even now, she has no immediate plans for retiring after the 2000 Games. Oh, there are some vague notions about majoring in communications or contemplating veterinary school.

But she makes decent wages from endorsements and appearances and sees no reason to sit down when she is standing atop the world.

"I may live and act like I'm older than I really am, but I don't feel that way. I still feel like I'm 20," Bennett said. "I enjoy my life. I spend time with my friends, I do the things I want to do. And I think maybe people appreciate that I haven't gone away. I've been here my whole life. I think maybe a lot of people here have grown up with me."

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