By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Although she was honored to be compared to her idol, Brooke Bennett resented not being able to create her own identity in the early days of her swimming career.
Almost as soon as she made her mark on the swimming world – she finished third behind 800 freestyle champion Janet Evans at the 1994 World Championships in Rome – Bennett was heralded as the “next Janet Evans,” the same one she grew up wanting to be.
And while she was honored and flattered to be compared to one of the greatest female distance swimmers of all time, Bennett said she struggled to be her own swimmer and competitor.
“That was a lot to live up to, and I always felt like I never really got to be myself,” she said. “It was difficult never being able to step out of Janet’s shadow and just be Brooke and celebrate what I accomplished.”
While Bennett lived in the wake of her idol for many of the early years of her career, one thing she admires about today’s swimmers is they are recognized for their own individual accomplishments and contributions.
“It’s unlikely anyone will ever be compared to Michael (Phelps) or Katie (Ledecky) or Missy (Franklin) because they’ve all created their own self identities,” she said. “They have all been appreciated for their own accomplishments, but I never really had that opportunity.
“Like I said, I was honored to be included in the same sentence with Janet, but I just wish I had had the chance to be judged on my own accomplishments and not compared to someone else’s.”
One of the reasons Bennett was compared to Evans early and often was because of her tremendous talent and success in the water – and because they swam the same events.
A member of two Olympic teams and winner of three gold medals – back-to-back (1996 and 2000) in the 800 freestyle – Bennett won medals at every level of international swimming.
In all, she completed her career with 19 – 11 gold – from the Olympics, World Championships (long and short course), Pan Pacific and Pan American Games. She’s regarded as one of the best female distance freestylers to ever don a cap and goggles.
But as is the case with many athletes, injuries crept into her life and prevented her from swimming much longer.
Following the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Bennett had surgery on both of her shoulders and took time off to recuperate and regain her strength.
Going into the 2004 Olympic Trials, she said she felt strong and was prepared to make her third team. But in her best event – the 800 free – she came up just short, finishing third behind Diana Munz and Kalyn Keller and missed the team.
While disappointed, Bennett said she was more proud of the fact that she had come that far after surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation kept her out of the water for some time.
She knew she had given it her all – just as she always did – and was ready to move on with the next phase of her life.
A life apart from swimming – or so she thought.
“I didn’t actually retire until 2008, but I really didn’t swim much after 2004 Trials,” she said. “When I did retire, I finally took the time to look back over my career with pride and satisfaction because I never really gave myself that opportunity while I was competing.
“Having double shoulder surgery and still coming close to making the Olympic team in 2004 was a tremendous accomplishment.”
After swimming, Bennett worked in television broadcasting for Bright House Networks in Clearwater, Fla. From 2009 to 2013. She covered mostly local sports, including high school, college and even the nearby Tampa Bay professional sports teams.
It was during a trip to cover a county wrestling tournament that she met her husband, Jeremy, a local coach and former football player for Western Kentucky.
“I didn’t know much about wrestling, so I found Jeremy and he kindly explained things to me and offered to help however he could,” Bennett said. “He wasn’t the type of guy I normally was attracted to – shaved head, huge beard and tattoos up and down both arms – but he has a very kind face and way about him.
“We kept in touch beyond that, and two years later when I needed perspective from a football coach (he is the defensive coordinator for a local high school) who wasn’t a head coach, I called him and things just went from there. We married two years ago on Memorial Day.”
Bennett left TV shortly after finding out she was pregnant with a son, Bas (named after a famous mixed martial arts fighter), and after giving private lessons and doing some clinics in the area, she recently embarked upon what she knows is her true professional calling.
In a partnership with the city of Clearwater, she officially launched the Brooke Bennett Aquatic Academy at the Long Recreation Center this month.
The venture started over the summer when she was approached by the city to help develop and “refine” its learn-to-swim program.
“I’m using my own swim model, and with the help of the city, we are taking the program to new levels,” Bennett said. “Their passion for teaching young children to swim – a necessity everywhere but especially in a coastal city like Clearwater – tied to my passion, and things have evolved from there.”
Bennett’s program philosophy involves having fewer students to instructors so the teaching is more one-on-one, and the amount of time in the water is shortened because of kid’s attention spans.
The academy includes a Water Babies program, beginning at 4 months old, up to a level 6 program, where the child has advanced enough to move on to summer league swimming.
“I wanted to teach the kids when they’re young, when swimming is really fun, but you have to work hard to make it fun and memorable for them,” she said. “I want the kids to go home from practice, and when their mom or dad asks them what they learned, they remember and can talk about it.
“If you keep them in practice too long or don’t make it fun for them, they won’t remember. I want this to be memorable for them.”
Shaun Beasley, supervisor of the Long Recreation Center which hosts the Academy, has already seen improvement in the program – and is excited to see where Bennett and her instructors can take it moving forward.
“We just started – we’re working on the first sessions – but the level of instruction has already gone up tremendously,” Beasley said. “The quality of swim lessons with Brooke’s professional instruction is fantastic.
“Brooke has taken the time to really work with each instructor – tell them what they’re doing well and what they can work on. She’s a very outgoing, positive person, and with her personality and experience, what she brings is something we know will eventually make us have the best swim lessons in the country.”
For Bennett, this partnership with the city is a true labor of love – something she knows will have a positive, life-saving impact on the community she loves.
“I feel like I have a unique opportunity to give back to the area with this academy, and I’m really excited about where we can take it,” said Bennett, who came out of retirement briefly in 2012, signed the papers to begin drug testing and started training for a comeback before retiring again when she learned of her pregnancy.
“Swimming has always been and always will be a huge part of who I am. I’ve always considered myself to be a real-life mermaid, and with this academy, I have the opportunity to inspire the next group of swimmers and help them create their own identities. That is a real privilege.”