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.”
RELATED VIDEO: Laura Bennett’s Olympic Qualifying Race
Greg and Laura are side-by-side almost constantly, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. They speak using ‘I’ and ‘we’ interchangeably—a habit that can be confusing to an outside observer, if not for the undeniable bond that links them together. Some particularly close couples finish one another’s sentences. The Bennetts seem to complete one another’s thoughts and glances. It’s as if they share a collective consciousness.
“It’s so true!” exclaimed Laura. “Sometimes he’ll bring up something and I’ll say, ‘Where’d you learn that? I don’t think you know that! You must have been studying. I know everything you know!’”
“It’ll be something from the 20 minutes I’ve had on the Frontier Airline’s television when I’ve gone to a race without her,” said Greg, laughing.
Laughter punctuates nearly every conversation the couple shares, both of them erupting into good-natured giggles at the slightest provocation. They laugh at themselves, at each other, at every opportunity; they’re simply a happy pair. They’re also uncannily similar. Both Bennetts come from solid family foundations with a 12-year spread among their siblings (Laura’s four and Greg’s two). Both their mothers are competitive go-getters (Laura’s in real estate sales, Greg’s in fundraising); their fathers are the families’ even-keeled, sporting influences.
Greg and Laura were encouraged by their parents in every pursuit—athletic and otherwise—and each was introduced to triathlon in the mid-1980s, albeit on opposite ends of the globe. Their Olympic fourths are not their only identical results: In 2009 the couple won Ironman 70.3 Augusta in tandem, during a brief foray into long-course racing. They each own numerous ITU World Cup titles and were named Triathlete magazine’s Triathletes of the Year in 2007. The two self-professed late-bloomers even look alike and could easily be mistaken for brother and sister, until the moment they speak and Greg’s impassioned Aussie accent bounds about in contrast to Laura’s all-American purr.
Finding one another was a perfect gift of fate, they say.
In 2000, Greg was questioning his future in the sport. He’d been controversially left off the Australian Olympic Team, despite a No. 2 world ranking. He was bitter and burned out.
“I was pretty despondent with the sport, a little bewildered with it all,” Greg said. “Then my longtime friend Simon Whitfield said, ‘Come to Victoria [Canada] and help me get ready for Sydney [the 2000 Olympics, where Whitfield won gold].’ I was kind of in no-man’s land wondering whether I should retire. So I moved to Canada and suddenly there was a squad where everybody was happy and having a good time. I hadn’t experienced that for about four years—it had felt like work. But in the forests of Canada I got my passion for running. I found new life in the sport. And then Laura came in August of 2000. I almost feel that, had I gone to the Olympics, maybe I wouldn’t have met her. So in the end, good luck/bad luck, who knows? Around every corner, after every disappointment is
something new. Laura was also questioning if she should continue with the sport, and here we are 11 years later and loving it!”
Laura, who was then Laura Reback, had indeed gone to Canada to prepare for her last hurrah as a professional triathlete.
“I was getting ready to go back down to Australia in 2001 for one more go at the old Formula One series, and then I was planning to call it quits. I’d only been racing professionally for a couple of years, but I had realized it was a lot of travel. I loved hanging out with all my girlfriends on the circuit, but I kind of wanted to get my future life going, you know? I knew if I had one person to share it all with, to do everything together—that would make every experience that much better. Otherwise I was done!”
It didn’t take the two long to realize they were each other’s special someone. Greg was smitten the moment a bikini-clad Laura stepped onto the pool deck, and Laura noticed the able-bodied Aussie during a run session. That afternoon they shared a coffee and started a conversation that cemented their connection, and they have been talking ever since. Five short weeks following their first Starbucks date, the Bennetts were co-habitating. Both were headed from Victoria to Australia to train under the guidance of renowned triathlon coach Lance Watson, so the decision to set up house in their new environs made perfect sense.
“I must say that first year living together was probably worse than the first year of marriage,” Laura recalled. “Because we knew we wanted to make this work forever. So everything meant something.”
“We both knew this was ‘the One,’” agreed Greg. “But you don’t know what the boundaries are—you don’t know the rules—and that first year we had to get a lot sorted. The one thing we’ve done really well is keep open communication. That was paramount from the beginning, getting our relationship established. We set up certain rules—we had to! We always had to give each other a kiss good morning and a kiss good night. No one was allowed to go to bed angry. Those types of rules. And we’ve kept that going.”
“The biggest rule has always been keeping our relationship first. When you decide to do that, once you have that baseline, everything else falls into place. I mean we’re together 24/7, so clearly we’re compatible,” Laura added with a characteristic giggle.
And they don’t get bored—or do they?
“Ummm …” teased Laura.
“Don’t ‘um’!” retorted Greg, feigning defensiveness.
And with this, both Bennetts immediately crack up.
“Only when we get tired do we argue,” said Greg. “What happens is you find yourself wanting to have an argument, and you don’t even know why. The other one will say, ‘You’re tired,’ and immediately you come back and say, ‘Oh no I’m not!’ And then you go put your head on the pillow and boom! You’re out. So we’ve gotten really good at understanding when we’re tired. We’ve worked hard at that.”
RELATED: Greg Bennett’s First Ironman
“We know we’re not going to break up, so why argue? We’re not going anywhere,” said Laura, expanding on their commitment. “And we like to do the same things. We’re similar athletes, but we’re different in some areas. We definitely complement each other in a positive way, but the way we deal with things is each a little different.”
Since the couple began coaching themselves in 2005, Greg has mapped out their overall training program while Laura’s focus has been on nutrition, recovery and daily details.
“Laura’s the one who holds us together,” Greg admitted. “I’m the big-picture planner. I need to be able to plan in four-year blocks. The day-to-day stuff is more Laura, hour-to-hour. And she’s the one who can handle emotions. Her emotions manage my emotions very well!”
Laura agrees with her husband’s assessment of their individual strengths.
“My role is to help him get to the starting line without taking himself out of the race. He knows exactly what he’s doing once the gun goes off. I’m there to calm him down before the start.”
Indeed, Laura functions as the pair’s sport psychologist.
“One of the things early on with Greg that I tried to get across was that when people tell you, ‘You’re going to win today,’ they’re just backing you,” she said. “Think of it as backing you, not as pressure. They’re saying, ‘I believe in you. I love you. Go for it! And I’ll be here if it falls apart.’ It’s not like, ‘I’m not going to talk to you when it’s over unless you’ve won!’”
Greg appreciates Laura’s emotionally mitigating influence.
“I sort of negotiate with Laura,” he said. “If a race doesn’t go my way, I’m allowed to be disappointed for an hour. And that’s important to me—I need that time. I can’t just wave it off. But then I move on. That’s what I try to explain to the younger guys coming up in the sport—you’ll lose far more often than you’ll win. It’s about dealing with disappointment and dealing with expectation.”
A year in the life of Greg and Laura Bennett includes a happy-go-lucky, party-fueled winter break, balanced against an admittedly boring in-season routine. Indeed, the couple has a reputation for being anti-social, even invisible, during peak training and racing months—a tough rap to shake when dinner happens at 5 p.m., bedtime at 8 p.m. and the morning alarm sounds as early as 4 a.m.
“That’s definitely my fault!” claimed Greg. “I think Laura would choose to be a lot more social.”
“I would,” she agreed, “but it would be irresponsible of me.
“We end up setting a routine,” she continued, “For training, diet—everything. We basically have a five-meal dinner rotation—it’s down to that level of routine. We don’t have to think about it and that’s exactly why we do it. You’re so tired and you can’t be bothered to think what to cook tonight, so we just buy five meals in a row. At that point, it’s not really like we’re enjoying food anymore—you just have to get it in so you’re ready for the next day.”
This practiced discipline will surely prove beneficial when the Bennetts move beyond racing to the next stage of their professional lives. Their company, Bennett Endurance, is a work-in-progress in terms of its specific direction, but it’s evident the pair intends to do something with the knowledge they’ve gleaned through their years in the sport.
“At the moment we’re just getting all sorts of people’s input,” Laura said. “We’re in a really good part of our lives. We’ve experienced so much that now we can make good decisions about the future. But we also know we don’t know everything. We’re really willing to listen to people’s ideas. There’s opportunity knocking every day—you just have to be ready to listen.”
“Absolutely,” Greg agreed. “I think we’ll always be involved in triathlon in some way. But maybe we’ll do something completely different. It could still be something to do with ‘endurance.’ Everybody in the world is enduring something, whether you’re working a 9-to-5 job or whether you’re a parent, whether you’re an athlete or not. The lessons we’ve learned in the sport, with all we’ve endured, I think we could go down several avenues helping people follow their own path, whatever that is.”
Again, the couple’s complementary differences benefit their emphasis on teamwork.
“I’m not too much of a dreamer because I’m very realistic, which is kind of a dream killer,” said Laura with a laugh. “I’m very practical, where he can dream really well.”
“She can be hard to brainstorm with sometimes!” acknowledged Greg. “But she gets things done.”
The dream of parenthood is one the Bennetts are also entertaining, balancing the best-laid practical plans against the uncontrollable unknowns.
“It’s one of those things of thinking forward—if we do have kids, how would we want to do it all? How do we maximize the next few years racing to make sure that the next life we have is as prepared—and enjoyable—as possible?” asked Laura.
“Kids will throw you every loop imaginable, but I still think you can have an overall plan for what you want,” continued Greg. “And then you roll with it.”
“Totally roll with it, still trying to keep that ‘it’s an experience’ outlook when you take that responsibility on,” agreed Laura. “I’m sure it’s scary as hell, but there really is no rule book.”
“And if we do have kids,” added Greg, “I’d almost rather they don’t know our triathlon history. It’s why we never had Olympic rings tattooed on ourselves. I don’t want our kids to ever feel that they have to compare themselves to us at all. Then they can do whatever they want. We did our lives; they can do theirs.”
But Greg and Laura Bennett’s rich life experiences aren’t limited to the race course.
“We’ve had our long breaks and big experiences away from the sport. After the ’04 Olympics we had three months totally off. It’s nice to know we still like each other when we’re away from it!” Greg said, laughing.
Following the Athens Olympics, the couple’s focus was on their impending nuptials rather than any finish line. They married in November of 2004, then honeymooned in South Africa. Laura briefly returned to race in Europe (she was on a French team at the time). Then, in early 2005 they discovered a deal on first-class round-the-world airline tickets and purchased the journey of a lifetime. The adventure was highlighted by a stay at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, touted as the world’s first seven-star hotel. It culminated with a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate Laura’s parents’ 40th anniversary.
“We were completely spoiled!” said Greg. “We haven’t done anything like it since—we can’t afford that. I remember at one point, Laura and I had gotten in the habit of waking up at 9 a.m. One morning Laura rolled over and said, ‘I could get used to this.’ I said, ‘Laura, you know this is not what we get to do if we’re not doing triathlon? We’ll have to get a real job!’ It was a reality check! We decided we’d better continue racing and started putting plans in place. There was a void in that Laura hadn’t been to the Olympics yet, so we focused on Beijing. Around that time was when Life Time Fitness put up all that money and the huge series [which Greg went on to win with a perfect series record, netting the sport’s single-largest prize purse of $500,000], so for me it was an easy avenue. And since then we’ve been like, ‘OK, what next?’
“The sport is simply a process to let us experience more things together,” he continued. “Beyond triathlon, we just want to go experience things. So the sport really doesn’t change who we are as people. We found each other and now it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go find stuff out. Let’s go do stuff.’”
Whatever the result from San Diego’s qualifying race, the Bennetts’ holistic outlook allows them to use London 2012 as a pivot point for the next “stuff” they do together.
“That’s the beauty of the sport,” said Laura. “There are so many opportunities. If we make the Olympics, we’ll go for it with everything we’ve got. It’s 100 percent the focus for now. But if we don’t make it, we’ll go down path B. We already have it mapped out.”
Nothing illustrates this attitude of acceptance better than Laura Bennett’s reaction to Gwen Jorgensen, who, virtually out of the blue, secured a U.S. Olympic triathlon team spot by placing second in London. It was a spot that many had expected would go to Bennett. Nevertheless, when Jorgensen passed Bennett in the race, Bennett reached out and gave her rival a congratulatory tap on the behind.
“I’m not a poor loser,” Laura said. “I appreciate how hard it is to have a great day. Gwen’s race unfolded perfectly. This sport is so humbling, and it’s so hard to get it all right. If anyone does, I’m right there to say, ‘Good job!’
“It’s about experiences,” she continued, repeating the couple’s oft-spoken mantra. “Anything more than an experience is a bonus. We absolutely love to race. We love the game. Winning is great, but it’s more about the process than the result. If you look at life like that, I think it helps a lot. It’s so easy to be serious, and we try constantly not to go down that road. And truly, we have no real responsibilities. Everything on our plates, we’ve put there. We’ve chosen to try to be the best in the world.”
Take a good look at the team of Greg and Laura Bennett and the life and passions they share, and it’s clear they’ve chosen wisely.
Holly Bennett, who shares no relation to Greg or Laura, is a Colorado-based freelance writer.