Laura Bennett (center) and Sarah Haskins exit the water during 2012 ITU World Triathlon San Diego Elite Women Race on May 11, 2012 in San Diego.
Now that Laura Bennett has made the U.S. Olympic Team for London, she can shrug off her experience last year in England as an off day at just the wrong time.
Sometimes, bad things happen to good triathletes.
Or, as she put it: “There’s a lot of hiccups along the way.”
But Bennett, who finished fourth in the triathlon at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, now said that her disappointing finish in the Olympic qualifier in London last August may be the best thing that could have happened.
Though she went into the race as one of the American favorites to qualify, and was among the leaders after the swim and into the early stages of the bike, Bennett inexplicably started dropping farther and farther off the lead, eventually finishing 24th. It would be her only finish outside the top eight at a World Championship Series race in 2011.
Gwen Jorgensen, who finished second that day, and Sarah Groff (seventh) locked up two of the three places on the U.S. women’s triathlon team. Bennett, meanwhile, was left to wonder if all her work toward getting to another Olympic Games was just going to slip away.
“I don’t know what happened in London last year,” Bennett told TeamUSA.org.
In the end, Bennett said, she just didn’t feel great. She felt tight, a little short of breath, and it cost her.
So — as she switched her focus to the last chance to qualify for the third and final spot on the team — she decided to change her approach.
While not cutting back on her swimming and running, the former All-America swimmer at SMU and standout high school runner in Florida decided to put an added emphasis on the bike over the winter months.
“It was a little bit of a blessing in disguise,” Bennett said.
By the time she traveled to San Diego for the final Olympic qualifier, the ITU World Triathlon event on May 11, she felt strong, and so was her performance.
To earn the final spot on the team she needed to finish as the top American and in the top nine, but Bennett easily topped that, finishing third overall while holding off a strong push by good friend and rival Sarah Haskins, who finished eighth.
Bennett’s time was 2 hours, 11 seconds over the Olympic-distance course (1,500-meter swim, 40k bike and 10k run).
“I put a little more focus on a bike base, probably riding three or four times more than I ever have,” explained Bennett, 37. “And I’m still keeping my run volume up and my swim volume, so it’s just adding that element that allows me to keep a lot of strength in my legs, and that’s what you need to build off of when you have to go to speed, which is basically what this world series stuff is all about. … To be able to run very quickly but to be very strong across all three (disciplines).”
A little more than a week later, Bennett followed up by winning the 5i50 Kansas City Triathlon in 2:01:34.
Now she and her husband (and coach) Greg — also a world-class triathlete who finished fourth representing his native Australia in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games — are back at home in Boulder, Colo. There, they will plan Laura’s competition and training schedules before London (where Greg will attend, but not compete). There is still plenty of work to do for Bennett to earn an Olympic medal. In Beijing, despite cramping during the run, she finished fourth, just 26 seconds shy of reaching the medal podium.
Triathlon for both men and women was added to the Olympic program in 2000 when the Games were held in Sydney. No American men have earned an Olympic medal in the sport. Susan Williams earned a bronze in Athens in 2004 and remains the only American Olympic triathlon medalist.
Bennett is hoping to rewrite history.
“Our goal basically was to be able to make the team with about an eight out of 10 fitness (level),” she said. “I think if you were 10 out of 10 now, there’s no way you’ll be 10 out of 10 come August in the Olympics.”
Not only didn’t she make the team with the full fitness level, but also she finished third, giving her confidence for the Games.
“I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I will do good,’ ” she said, laughing.
Bennett said she could spend most of her time in Boulder training, or go to Europe to tune up with some races. She hasn’t decided what she’ll do yet.
“There’s a few factors that we’ll take into account for that,” she said. “I think the difference is basically getting my run threshold down, doing a lot of the hard running that it’s going to take to win the Games.” Bennett said she will need to put in many additional hard running training sessions “to get to the level that I need to be to be vying for that podium and the gold medal.”
She won’t have a real sense of her chances until August, she said, “but I think we have a good chance.”
Finishing fourth in Beijing four years ago is definitely motivation, she said. So close yet so far. After being an alternate for the U.S. triathlon teams in both Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, Bennett finally got a chance to compete in China. Now she has another chance to compete in London.
The triathlon course in London will be scenic, starting with a swim in The Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, a bike route past many of London’s most famous landmarks and a four-lap run around Hyde Park. The women’s race will be Aug. 4.
“I did the best I could on the day (in Beijing), and being just off the podium isn’t awesome,” she said. “So I was pretty motivated since then to try to make 2012. … I wanted another crack at these Games.”
And now she’s got it.