WHEN SWIMMING CHAMPION Brooke Bennett was 4, she got a pink Strawberry Shortcake bicycle. A month before she turned 5, her mother took off the training wheels. "We'd go out in the driveway," says Rachel Bennett, "and the minute I'd let go, she'd have a wreck." Brooke told her mom she wasn't ready for two wheels but would be when she was 5. "The day of her birthday," says Rachel, "Brooke went straight to the garage and rode that two-wheeler without any problem. Then she asked if it was as fast as the bicycle could go. That's Brooke. You can talk till you're blue in the face, but she does what she sets her mind on doing—and she does it her way."

Now 16, Bennett is the U.S.'s best hope for an Olympic medal in the 800-meter freestyle, in the wake of her victory over four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans, 24, at the March trials in Indianapolis. "There was nothing that was going to keep me from making the Olympics," says Bennett.

Just ask Evans, who first found herself in the youngster's sights in March 1995, when Evans decided to skip the Pan-Am Games in Argentina. Bennett, who not long before had placed second to Evans at the World Championships, suggested her rival was afraid of her. "She knows," said Bennett, "there's someone coming up to take her place." A few months later, at the Senior Nationals, Bennett took three races from Evans and gave her another tweaking—"I'm sure Janet was a little disappointed"—and what the press dubbed the Duel in the Pool was joined. In Indianapolis, when she was asked to compare herself to Bennett, Evans tartly replied, "When I was 15, I had two world records."

The only child of Rachel Bennett, 42, a medical secretary, and her husband, Keith, 36, a troubleshooter for Florida Power & Light, Brooke has always been a handful. Her grandfather James Lane, who, until his death last month at 67, lived close to the Bennetts in Plant City, Fla., was the first to lead her to water, giving Brooke lessons in his backyard pool. By 5, she had joined a swimming team in Tampa and was competing. "I don't know how we could have managed without it," says Rachel. "It helped burn up Brooke's excess energy. I probably would have ended up strangling her."

In school, Brooke made it clear to everyone that she was operating in her own lane. She came home one day with a note from the teacher saying that all the kids had been asked to color a picture using just three crayons, but Brooke had refused. "Brooke explained that she couldn't possibly do it in just three colors," says Rachel, "because then it would be ugly, so there was no point in doing it at all." At swim meets, Brooke would sometimes try to trade the first-place black-and-gold ribbons for the pink and purple ones, despite the fact that those were awarded for coming in sixth and seventh. "She always had her own ideas," says Rachel. "Fortunately, we got together with Peter Banks. Brooke listens to Peter."

An affable Irishman who runs the swimming program at the Brandon Swim & Tennis Club, Banks, 40, says, "Brooke was always very driven. At age 10, she wanted to come every morning to practice at 5 a.m. with the bigger kids. Ten is too early for that, and I told her, 'No, only two mornings a week.' And she'd turn up anyway. Her determination is a great quality. It can also be difficult." Says Brooke, tossing her honey-colored hair: "I just always loved swimming. Being in the water was like, you know, my nature—like what I was born to do."

When Bennett is not in the swim, she's often at home in the family's comfortable two-story house, hanging out with Noelle, her Vietnamese potbellied pig, who sleeps with Brooke on her all-purple sheets and quilt. ("She begged for purple carpeting," says Rachel, "but there are a few areas where I win.") The Bennetts' menagerie also includes Grade, the dachshund; Lady, the rottweiler; Odie, the cat; Roxy, the horse; Taco, the donkey; and three cows.

Bennett has human friends too. In March, after the trials, there was a huge celebration at Durant High School, where she is a sophomore. Most of the kids didn't know she was a world-class swimmer until they read it in the paper. "I didn't tell them," says Bennett. "I didn't want them to like me because of swimming. At school, I don't want to talk about swimming. I want to talk about the weekend."

The latter is a new flash point for the Bennetts. Come Friday night, Brooke wants to be with her friends, while Peter wants her to rest. "I'll ask my mom about doing something on the weekend," says Brooke, "and she'll say, 'Well, did you ask Peter?' And I'm like, 'Excuse me!' I mean, like, I don't need three parents around here."

For now, Bennett's focus is on Atlanta. In the 800-meter freestyle she is ranked first, and Evans second. But if there is any anxiety these days in the Bennett household, it's not about the Olympics. Brooke has announced that after she medals in Atlanta, she means to go skydiving. "Everyone says it's the ultimate rush!" says Brooke. Perhaps of greater concern: In May she got her driver's license.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Plant City

  • Contributors:
  • Gail Cameron Wescott.