Brooke Bennett, appropriately nicknamed “waterbabi’, was destined to be a swimmer. It was her life. It defined her.
Beginning with swim lessons at 3, joining her first team at 5, and getting Olympic fever at 8, Brooke spent nearly every waking hour in the pool or thinking about how to swim faster. And that dedication and focus paid off.
At age 16, she became the sweetheart of the 1996 Olympics, edging out Janet Evans for the gold medal in the 800m freestyle. And four years later in to 2000 she doubled down to grab gold in both the 400m and 800m swimming freestyle.
However, after two shoulder surgeries, Brooke failed to make the Olympic team in 2004. “Swimming never felt like a job until 2004.”
After taking some time away from the sport, Brooke made another attempt at the Olympics in 2008. In spite of the three Gold medals, Brooke said, “I still felt like I had to prove myself to others.”
As with 2004, Brooke failed to make the Olympic team and she needed to make a plan for what would be next. There was only one problem:
Swimming was all that she knew or at least all that she thought she knew.
Retirement from Competitive Swimming
After facing the reality of retirement, and for nearly two years, Brooke was in a self-described funk. “Retiring was like getting lost in outer space. I wasn’t prepared. I was afraid of it.”
Without swimming to provide a platform of stability and support, Brooke was lost. She was tossed out into a new world without knowing how to fit in.
“I went into survival mode. I basically told myself, I am 28 and I have accomplished so much, but I have to start the process over.”
That process of starting over began during an awards banquet that Brooke almost missed.
In early 2009, Brooke was inducted in the Sports Club of Tampa Bay Hall of Fame; however on the day of the induction ceremony Brooke was fighting bronchitis and pneumonia. “I felt terrible, but I decided to go anyway.”
The speech must have been spectacular. After her speech, Brooke was approached about a new opportunity, one that combined her passion for athletics with her charisma in front of a television camera.
The opportunity that presented itself was as a broadcaster with Bright House Sports Network in Tampa Bay, Florida. Focusing on the local high school sports scene, Brooke spends a lot of time out in the field interviewing kids, parents, and coaches. And being a hometown hero doesn’t hurt when it comes to gaining access and getting a complete story.
“What I have found from going out on assignments is that the kids may not know me, but their coaches do.” Tampa Bay Online
But with most new careers, the learning curve has been steep, and Brooke freely acknowledges that she still has a lot to learn:
“The door was opened for me at the hall of fame induction, but my new career is still a work in process. I haven’t fallen on my face, but I have definitely fallen on my butt.”
One of things important to Brooke is that her TV personality matches who she is. “As someone new, it is tempting to try and copy other successful people, but I need to be true to myself. How I dress, how I fix my hair and my makeup, and how I relate to the people I interview is exactly how I am. What you see is what you get.”
Brooke’s colleagues from the world of swimming and broadcasting have taken note:
“It has been a pleasure watching Brooke grow as a person. She was a tremendous role model in the pool and is now a role model for all women. I see such joy in her face when she talks about her career in the broadcasting world and that is the true meaning of success.” – Summer Sanders, 1992 Olympic gold medalist, swimming
Like most other journalists covering a local market, Brooke has career aspirations involving a role at the regional or national level.
“My current managers are very supportive, but my eyes have been opened to something bigger. I am definitely not better than anyone else, but I have put some big goals in place.”
And Brooke has her radar tuned to other opportunities as well, but she is careful not to stretch herself too thin.
Back in the Water
While Brooke is busy building a new career, she has stayed plugged in to the sport of swimming. In 2010 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. And in the past year, Brooke has begun to dip her toe back into the water, but not with the intention of chasing another Olympic dream. “Last year I got back into the pool for the sake of some Open Water swims and specifically to participate in the charity, Swim Across America. “In the past, everything was so specifically driven, but I don’t have any expectations any more. Swimming has become fun.”
In spite of her statement that swimming is for fun, Brooke still trains hard. “I am getting up at 4am three days each week to practice.” Last fall Brooke competed in a Masters meet with swimming legend, Rowdy Gaines. “By the end of the meet, after swimming a mile, I had a huge sense of accomplishment.”
Even though she has retired from Olympic swimming, Brooke is still a huge fan. And she has a few thoughts about the 2012 Olympic Games.
In the women’s events Brooke says to watch for Missy Franklin, Rebecca Soni, Dagny Knuston, and Teresa Crippen. “But don’t ever count out Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres, and I have a strong feeling Janet Evans is going to knock the socks off many.”
“On the men’s side, keep your eye on Sean Ryan, Anthony Ervin, and Conor Dwyer. And pay attention to Rex Tullius who is training by the example of Ryan Lochte – he’s on a winning drive to be spectacular this summer.”
When I asked about how she wants to be thought of, as an Olympian, a gold medalist, or the woman on the Wheaties box, Brooke responded without hesitation. “Those things aren’t who I am. They are simply honors and accomplishments to be proud of.”
And while swimming is still an important part of her life, it no longer defines her. Brooke has become more secure and confident in all of her abilities and talents.