Bennett Clark says he didn’t expect to become one of the best short-distance swimmers in the country.
Several years ago, Missouri swimmer Bennett Clark would have laughed if you had told him he would be swimming in the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials. He would have smirked if you had told him he would win nearly every race he swam. And being named the Big 12 Performer of the Year last season? He would have chuckled.
Missouri coach Brian Hoffer might not have seen it coming either. Hoffer said coming out of Kirkwood High School, Clark wasn’t “that guy,” and wasn’t highly recruited. Still, he saw something in the former four-sport athlete.
“I saw that drive in him as a four-sport athlete and those are the kids you look for and love,” Hoffer said. “You can teach technique, but you can’t teach how to compete.”
Hoffer’s hunch has proven to be a good one over the three years Clark has been at Missouri. The junior has turned into one of the swim team’s most successful swimmers and qualified over the summer for the 2008 Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb. After first qualifying in July at the Region 8 sectional meet in the 50-yard freestyle with the Tigers, he did it again in August on an even bigger stage, the U.S. Senior National meet in Irvine, Calif.
It was the hardest he had ever worked during a summer, and it provided many great accomplishments. He enjoyed a special moment when he swam his first qualifying time. After being .04 seconds off of the qualifying time in the morning, he knew what he had to do when he raced again that evening.
Clark swam the qualifying time in front of his teammates and father, who announced the race. As his dad rushed down to hug him and his teammates congratulated him, relief and joy swept over him.
“I was so excited because I have a couple more summers to improve before the Olympic trials,” Clark said. “Seeing everybody as happy for me as I felt was great. At the Olympic trials I won’t just be representing myself, I’ll be representing Missouri and my family.”
The rush didn’t stop there. Several months later in August, Clark and his club team traveled to Irvine to take part in one of the biggest swim meets in the country. The loud atmosphere and elite competition made up of the best swimmers in the country left Clark wide-eyed. Not only did he get to swim against the best, he learned from them as well.
“It was my first large meet like that, and it was a cool experience,” Clark said. “There were some of the best swimmers in the country, gold medalists and tons of Olympians walking around.”
One of these Olympians included Cullen Jones, one of the top short distance swimmers in the country. After Clark swam earlier in the morning in a race that didn’t go as well as he expected, he ran into Jones and received some helpful advice from him.
“We talked for about 20 minutes and he basically told me it all comes down to wanting it more than the other guys,” Clark said. “He told me I just need to push myself as hard as I can.”
The advice had an impact. Later that evening, a determined Clark swam his second Olympic trial qualifying time. Alex Zasadny, a Missouri and club teammate, was at the meet with Clark and wasn’t surprised by his teammate’s performance.
“The meet measures you against the best America has to offer, Zasadny said. “The way Bennett performed is a testament to what kind of competitor he is and the talent he possesses.”
Being at a large, intense meet also helped Clark for the Missouri swim season.
“Being around some of the top guys and being able to talk to them about training and racing strategy, it was huge as far as experience goes,” Clark said.
The U.S. Senior National meet also helped him realize what he needed to improve on to get to the next level. For example, after watching the elite swimmers’ leg kicks off the wall during a race, he wanted to work on leg strength because he saw how crucial a strong kick is.
He hopes the improvements will get him to the NCAA meet and beyond.
“No matter how fast I go this season, if I don’t make it to the NCAA’s I won’t consider it a full success,” Clark said. “I made the top 24 at nationals, but I want to make the top eight. I want to prove myself at a national level and there is always work to do to catch up to the best.”
In addition to reaching his goal, swimming in a highly competitive meet such as the NCAA’s will be a valuable experience in his ongoing development. Hoffer said Clark is still on the bubble of going to the next level and needs to get faster and gain more big-meet experience, but has plenty of time to do so. After all, Clark has only been training year-round in swimming for two years.
“Getting to the NCAA’s and getting use to those guys is key,” Hoffer said. “The Olympic qualifying meet is intimidating and a lot of kids melt down there.”
Even with the increased expectations his performances over the summer have brought, the pressure hasn’t fazed Clark.
“People are looking at me to step up, people at other schools are gunning for me, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Clark said.
Clark also prides himself on being the anchor and go-to guy in relay races.
“Many times our team has relied on him to come back from behind to anchor our relay to victory,” Zasadny said. “Without Bennett, it’s easy to say that our men’s team would not be anywhere as good as we are. He’s the cornerstone of our program and rightfully the face of the University of Missouri swimming and diving.”
With the Olympic trials still in the future, Hoffer said his emerging star just keeps getting better. When 2008 finally does come, Clark needs to place in the top two of the events he swims in to make the Olympic team or finish in the top six in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle to make a relay team. The goal is to make the team, but just swimming with the best sprinters in the country will accomplish a lifelong dream.
“I got a taste of what the top swimmers were like,” Clark said. “I want to be there so bad and looking at them and their technique, it gives me something to look at and drive myself to get better.”