CLEARWATER — Brooke Bennett zipped across the pool at The Long Center on a recent afternoon, completing the final laps of the second of her two workouts that day. She would be back for more at 4:45 the following morning.
Everything Bennett does these days revolves around swimming: her diet, her training, her life, just as it was back in the day when Bennett was one of the top swimmers in the world, swimming in two Olympics and winning three gold medals.
At 33, Bennett is working toward another Olympics — the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero, Brazil — in another race.
Bennett won gold in the 800 meters in 1996 (Atlanta) and 2000 (Sydney, Australia), and in the 400 in 2000. Now she has turned her efforts toward the open-water swim, a grueling 10K event that was emerging when Bennett's career was winding to an end.
“Some people are like, 'You're absolutely insane,' ” Bennett said.
The Plant City native retired from competitive swimming in 2008, became a TV sports reporter and felt her career with Bright House Sports Network was on the rise.
She's crazy in love and planning a wedding for 2015 with her fiance Jeremy Frioud, the head football coach at Northeast High in St. Petersburg.
Yet, Bennett put her TV career on hold and will work the wedding around her schedule to climb another mountain because at her core, Bennett is a world-class swimmer who loves a world-class challenge.
“That's what makes me tick. I thrive on that,” she said. “I thrive in, 'How can I push myself? How can I gain a little bit more?' That's the challenge.”
And this is some challenge.
The open-water swim covers a 6.2-mile course that changes from event to event. The course in Rio could be one or a series of laps. Swimmers will compete against each other in addition to battling currents, water temperatures and weather conditions.
In April, Bennett competed in a swim from the Sunshine Skyway bridge to the Courtney Campbell Causeway where seas were 4 to 6 feet.
“The swim took me two hours longer than I wanted it to just because of what the weather conditions were that day,” Bennett said.
Bennett is no longer in the comfort zone of the pool where the chlorine count, water temperature and the length of each lap never change.
“I like the challenge. I like the unexpected, and it teaches me a little something about myself,” she said. “I've always been a control person. I've always like to control what's around me, and this makes me go a little bit outside my comfort zone and challenge myself differently, so I think it makes the end goal easier to strive for, because I can't compare it to what I strived for before.”
Bennett attempted to make the 2004 games but surgery on both shoulders cut into her training and she finished third in the 800, one spot out of making the team. While disappointed — “Third is worse. Third is last,” she said — Bennett was at peace with her performance. Four years later she officially retired.
“When I retired I was happy. I was satisfied,” she said. “I was at that point ready to take that next step in my life.”
But she never stopped swimming.
For years Bennett has been involved in Swim Across America, raising money for the battle against cancer through long-distance, open water swims.
Janel Jorgensen, silver medalist for the U.S. in the 4 x 100 relay in the 1988 games and president of Swim Across America, invited Bennett to an event in Boston in July 2011.
“It kind of led me into just getting back into it, and then I went out and did another open water swim and I kind of liked it,” Bennett said. “One thing after another, that door began to reopen. It wasn't forced (open).”
Randy Reese, Bennett's coach, wasn't surprised when Bennett came out of retirement.
“I just think she never got enough of the hard training and dedication and competition, and I think she wants to keep going until she gets that out of her system,” he said.
But qualifying the 2016 Olympic team is half the battle for Bennett. Getting there presents its own problems.
Bennett's agent Evan Morgenstein said it costs a minimum of $125,000 to $250,000 a year for an athlete to train for the Olympics.
“Everybody thinks, 'Oh you're training for the Olympics and it's taken care of by the Olympic committee,' and that's wrong,” Morgenstein said. “It doesn't happen that way.”
Morgenstein's agency handles the largest group of Olympic athletes, including Dara Torres, Amanda Beard and Mark Spitz. It's his job to make Bennett marketable, book speaking appearances and lineup endorsements for Bennett so she can afford to chase her dream.
“No matter what's she's done in the past, it's a very difficult proposition to get back into the water and fund it,” he said.
Morgenstein thinks Bennett's comeback makes her a perfect spokeswomen for companies trying to market to women in their 30s.
“This is sending a message to women in their 30s that just because you're in your 30s, you don't have to give up on your dream,” he said. “You can still do things that you did when you were in your 20s and even teens and do it better and more effectively, because you're older and smarter and better because you're more mature, and she's the living embodiment of that.”
Bennett will be 36 in 2016.
“You don't get a lot of people who are not competing at her age to say I'm going to take a run at the Olympics,” Reese said. “That's a big goal to go after, but she's a pretty tough girl.”
Reese was on to something when he said Bennett hasn't gotten the swimming out of her system.
“I have to take that risk. I want to take that risk,” Bennett said. “I don't want to look back on this when I'm 60, 70 years old and my grandkids are asking me about my life and I have that one regret. I don't want to do that, and by doing this I won't have that one regret.”