This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. Laura Bennett finished third at the ITU World Triathlon Series San Diego race, securing her spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Greg Bennett has since decided to shift his focus to long-course racing and has validated his spot to the 2012 Ironman World Championship.
The month of May looms large in the household of Greg and Laura Bennett.
That’s when it will be decided whether the pair—two of the most talented and successful short-course triathletes in history, with 30 World Cup podiums between them—will score berths on Team U.S.A. bound for London’s Olympic Games. Oddly enough, as firmly focused on the five-ring circus as the Bennetts remain, speak to them long enough and it becomes apparent that racing in the 2012 Olympics is not a deal-breaker for their happiness. They want it badly. They’re driven to get there, having crafted their life together into a targeted four-year block. Yet they’ll be categorically OK if selection does not sway in their favor.
The politics of Olympic selection are nothing if not complex. Chances for selection run highest for Laura, 36, originally from West Palm Beach, Fla. She simply needs to best her close friend and only remaining rival for the third U.S. women’s spot, Sarah Haskins, at the final qualifier, the ITU World Triathlon Series San Diego race in May, and place in the top nine in the process. If neither Bennett nor Haskins places in the top nine women overall in San Diego, their fate will be decided at the discretion of USA Triathlon’s selection committee.
For Greg Bennett, 40, an Australian by birth who now enjoys dual citizenship and races under the U.S. flag, the probability of a team position is far more tentative and confusing. Simply put, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic triathlon team is all about navigating the ITU’s complicated race series—its World Triathlon Series (which has only been around since 2009), World Cup series and Continental Cup series—and earning enough points to qualify for the U.S.’s two Olympic Trials: the World Triathlon Series race in London this past August and the San Diego race in May. The World Triathlon Series races are weighted more heavily points-wise, offer larger prize purses and more media recognition, and draw stronger fields—all factors that Greg favors. The Cup races are less competitive, yet occur more frequently, thus they are favored by athletes considered to be strategic “points chasers.”
Early in 2011 Greg focused on the World Triathlon Series races; however, his performances were not up to par. When he failed to earn a start at the London race he could have then packed his schedule with late-season World Cup events to erase his points deficit. But he recognized the risk in taxing his 40-year-old body too close to San Diego, digging a hole from which he’d be unlikely to emerge. Instead, when an invitation came to race the renowned Hy-Vee 5150 U.S. Championship, Bennett toed the non-drafting start line and crushed the world-class field. His victory confirmed his standing as one of America’s premier short-course professionals and earned him a lucrative $151,500 prize.
Bennett’s business-mindedness and desire to face off against his fiercest rivals have always played a hand in his planning, though perhaps to the detriment of his Olympic dream. While he’s been in close communication with USA Triathlon’s high performance director in regard to his race choices, he knows USA Triathlon’s hands may be tied when it comes to naming the U.S. men’s team.
“USAT has been brilliant, doing everything they can to help me make the team,” said Greg. “I understand that the path I’ve chosen—not to run around chasing points—has put them in a difficult spot. But do I believe I’m good enough to represent the U.S.A.? Absolutely! I’ve balanced my choices against my big-picture goals, but I’m not shutting the door on my Olympic hopes. USAT will have to shut it for me.”
Right now, that door remains ever so slightly ajar. Greg will not race for points heading into San Diego in a final effort to make the start list. If two Americans place top nine overall in the race, they’ll automatically earn spots on the U.S. men’s Olympic triathlon team. However, if two men do not automatically qualify, the selection committee may opt to pull strings in Greg’s favor with an outright team appointment.
Adding to the complexity—and allure—of Greg’s impending 2012 season is the World Triathlon Corporation’s (WTC) recent rule change for professional qualification to its championship events. As the 2011 Hy-Vee champion, Greg is now granted automatic entry to all of WTC’s 2012 championship races, including the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in Las Vegas and the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, as long as he validates his qualifying spots by completing WTC races of equal distance. Immediately on the heels of WTC’s January announcement, Greg proclaimed his intention to race the inaugural Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Melbourne, Australia, on March 25 in order to secure his place on the start line in Kona, come October.
In theory, Bennett could race in Melbourne, receive a discretionary invitation to London’s Olympics, then compete in all three WTC championship events—5150, Ironman 70.3 and Ironman—in a single season, providing him a smorgasbord of the marquee races he savors. In practice, this may prove quixotic, yet one thing is certain: The triathlon public will watch with eager anticipation to see how Greg’s plan plays out.
Meanwhile, at this point it’s still anyone’s guess as to how many—two or three—and which American men will race in London.
Simply understanding the selection process is exhausting enough, never mind the painstaking preparation—physically, mentally and emotionally—required to compete at the highest level of the sport. Olympic athletes are often singularly focused to a fault, honed in laser-like on one event on one single day every four years. The Bennetts have both been down that road before, with Greg racing in Athens in 2004 and Laura in Beijing in 2008. Both finished fourth, the most painful position to land in a competition where medals—and the media and financial opportunities they often bestow—are only awarded three deep.
But the Bennetts hold no remorse over their bridesmaid spots.
“I think we are two of the most fortunate athletes in the sport,” said Greg. “Yes, we have both come fourth in the Olympics, but put it in perspective. It’s not a bad result, and we still had an amazing experience for both of us.”
“That’s what we talk about,” said Laura. “The journey. Because at the end of the day, you may or may not get the result you wanted. But if you didn’t notice what happened every step of the way, all the way up to it, and experience everything you could all the way, then you’ve really missed out. When I was swimming [at Southern Methodist University] there were so many Olympians who were super-depressed after the Olympics. Even sometimes the people who had won, because they were expecting a certain amount of recognition and they didn’t get it. A diver I heard about was almost suicidal. Or people who didn’t perform, they didn’t remember the whole process. All the experiences they had, all the friends they made, none of that. And it’s like, ‘Really?’”
Minus an outright Olympic obsession, one might wonder what does drive Greg and Laura Bennett to train and perform at the pinnacle of short-course triathlon as they have for more than a decade.
“It’s all about experiences,” said Greg. “Going back to the ’04 Olympics, what I really remember is the eight weeks before. Laura put her own training aside and the two of us trained everything together. Every workout. It was the intensity and focus of that period that sticks in my mind forever. That, and the opening ceremony and all the activities leading up to the Games. The fourth place is irrelevant. My Olympic experience is that eight-week block and the experiences surrounding the race. We did it together. The journey is all of it. It really is.”
It’s a journey the Bennetts intend to make hand-in-hand if either of them winds up competing in London. Indeed, Greg’s impetus in gaining American citizenship was largely influenced by his desire to race on the same national team as his wife.
“It was always a case where both of our countries would let the other one into ‘camp,’ but they wouldn’t let either of us out. So if we both raced the same Games, we’d be split up the entire time,” explained Laura.
“It’s been that way since back when we were doing the World Series together, from 2000 to 2006,” said Greg. “We were always staying in different hotels. It was crazy. We both had great teams, but it was always challenging trying to juggle and see each other. And when you’re used to spending your time 24/7 with someone, well, it kind of sucked! That wasn’t what I wanted from the experience. I wanted to be with her and she wanted to be with me.”
Teamwork and togetherness are defining themes for this twosome, and nearly a dozen years into their relationship they show no signs of weakness in their united front.
“Sometimes they still are like teenagers in love,” said longtime friend, fellow pro and frequent houseguest Mathias Hecht. “They really are a perfect match. They both laugh a lot. Greg doesn’t work or function the same way without Laura, and the same the other way around. I have the greatest respect for what they’ve achieved in their careers, but I think they are also role models as human beings. Living together under the same roof with them showed me what an amazing team they are.”