COLUMBIA — In August, former MU swim star Bennett Clark made the difficult decision to skip his senior season with the school. But his decision now has him poised to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
“It was tough,” Clark said. “Just being in an Olympic year and having Olympic trials this summer, I just wanted to do what would give me the best shot, what would put me in the best position to make the Olympic team.”
Clark had decided to redshirt this year after speaking with MU coach Brian Hoffer. Had he not redshirted and swam with MU, his times would have peaked at the end of the team’s season, months before the Olympic qualifying trials.
When Clark found out that he could maintain his final year of college eligibility by taking online classes, rather than staying on campus, Clark decided to join the Mecklenburg Aquatic Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Clark has been training with the team’s elite program, composed entirely of swimmers preparing for the U.S. Olympic qualifying trials. Clark is one of only a couple non-professionals on the fairly new squad, which was started last spring by MAC head coach David Marsh.
“It’s a pretty good group to be around, swimming with pros,” Clark said. “I’m pretty much living the lifestyle of a pro. I’m taking two classes online to maintain my eligibility, but I’m pretty much living the lifestyle of a pro, just swimming, swimming all day and doing all the good stuff. I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
Because Clark’s life focuses almost entirely on swimming these days, he’s found he has a lot more free time than he had in his college days, time he’s spent relaxing and getting ready for his next practice.
“The other big advantage is it gives me time to do what I’m doing,” Clark said. “Now if I’m tired, I can just take a nap instead of having to go to class. The good thing here is that it gives my body time to rest and recover instead of stressing out over tests, practices and all that kind of thing. I can feel a difference. I can feel a difference in being ready for a practice, instead of maybe being up so late studying for a test.”
Training with a select few teammates has given Clark a wealth of specific training and individual attention from one of the country’s best sprint coaches that Clark would have missed had he chosen to stay at MU for his redshirt year. But Clark said the mental preparation with the team has been just as important.
“Mentally, being able to train with these guys and seeing them everyday has helped me out tremendously, just to see what very high level training looks like,” Clark said. “Just to be surrounded by those guys every day, it pushes me to get better. Mentally, I get to see how Olympians train and how they do it.”
The MAC swimmers have bolstered that preparation with team activities, such as poker nights and talks with former Olympians, including non-swimmers.
Yet Clark said the adjustment from the team-first college atmosphere to the individual training at MAC was not easy.
“I think it took me a little bit longer to adjust than I thought,” Clark said. “I thought I’d kind of hit the ground running ... It has been hard, because I’m definitely a team-oriented guy, and that’s the thing I love about the college season, is that it’s very team-oriented and guys get behind each other. Here, it’s a little different than that, but at the same time, the level of competition is higher so it’s easy for me to motivate myself to work hard at practice.”
Clark stressed that his decision to leave MU over the summer was a difficult one. Growing up without brothers, Clark considered his three MU roommates his brothers and the team his family away from home. He said it was hard to leave such a close group, especially growing up a “Mizzou fanatic” in St. Louis.
“But I knew for the best interests of my swimming career and my future, that I had to do what was best for me,” said Clark, who was recently back in Columbia for the Missouri Grand Prix. “And I think swimming with MAC and being in Charlotte has definitely done that.”
Clark has not yet decided whether he will try to return to MU after the summer, saying he is just focusing on the home stretch leading up to the trials.
With his goal of making the U.S. Olympic team, Clark will certainly have his work cut out for him. He will swim the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races at the trials, two of the most competitive events in the Olympic lineup. Clark’s best times at the Missouri Grand Prix would place him 15th and 21st, respectively, in the Olympic trials held in 2004 before the Athens games.
Clark will also benefit, though, by his choice of events. Because the 100-meter free race corresponds with the 400-meter freestyle relay, the top six swimmers in the 100 free at the trials could potentially make the U.S. Olympic team, as opposed to the two usually allotted to each individual event.
“I could already tell two weeks after coming to Charlotte that [redshirting] was the right choice to make,” Clark said. “The [trials] meet still isn’t for several months, and I know that that was the right decision. I’ve learned things and accomplished things that I couldn’t have done in a college season. Even if I don’t make the Olympic team, I know that I will have at least given myself the best chance to do so.”