BOULDER — Laura Bennett arrived in Beijing four years ago eager to experience everything that goes along with being a first-time Olympian.
She left fulfilled in all ways but one. In the final 2 miles of the 6.2-mile run portion of the triathlon, Bennett fell from second place to fifth. She recovered in the final stretch of the race to finish fourth, one spot off the medal podium.
Now Bennett is on her way back to the Olympics, and her mind is on one thing: racing.
"That's been the focus since, probably, '08," Bennett said, breaking into a hearty laugh last weekend after winning the Olympic-distance Boulder Peak Triathlon in her adopted hometown.
"I don't think it's worth going to the Games if you don't think you can medal, so that's why I wanted another crack. I do think the medals are available this time," Bennett said. "The girls are phenomenal this time around, but I just want the challenge too. I love racing. It inspires me to make more of my training, and I need that to push myself. If I think of a goal, this is the one that would push me to the next level."
Bennett, 37, is in the final phase of her training, with only a handful of hard sessions left in Boulder before she begins her final taper for the Olympics. She's skipping the opening ceremony this year and won't arrive in London until July 29, six days before her race on Aug. 4.
For a race that is basically a two-hour sprint, with three distinct disciplines and a plethora of in-race tactical challenges, Bennett is remarkably calm.
"I want to make the most of it. I want to do certain parts of it. But I don't need to do any of it, so it sort of gives you a calming effect to it," Bennett said.
Perhaps the calm is a result of just how Bennett wound up back on the Olympic team. As the top American in Beijing and often the top American on the professional triathlon circuit in the past several years, Bennett admitted she was "a little devastated" after a disappointing race in the first Olympic-qualifying race in London last August. She fell away from the pack in the bike leg and wound up 25th, and the third American. She needed to be among the top nine finishers to secure a spot on the U.S. team.
"I don't know what happened. Maybe it was simply getting over there 10 days before and doing one hard session, and that kind of flattened me a bit," Bennett said.
Two Americans, Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah Groff, earned Olympic spots that day, and Bennett spent her winter knowing she would have only one more chance to claim that one final spot.
While training in Australia, Bennett logged thousands of miles on her bike and worked on getting stronger to drop her time in the run, typically her weakest of the three legs. She returned to Colorado in April to continue training, and arrived in San Diego in May for the ITU World Triathlon with her fitness level at an "8 out of 10," said her husband and coach, Greg Bennett.
"If she hit San Diego at 10 out of 10, you're not going to be in good shape in London. It was a gamble we took, and it worked," Greg Bennett said.
Though not yet at her peak, Bennett took off with the lead pack in the swim and bike and held on in the run to finish third overall. More important, she was the first American, securing her return trip to the Olympics.
"There was a lot of underlying stress in the winter, and I don't think I realized how much until I made it in San Diego and all the emotion came through, and it was like, 'Oh, maybe I was hanging on to something,' " Bennett said.
She has been racing in these high-pressure situations since she first took up triathlons as a teenager in North Palm Beach, Fla. Her brothers, John and David Reback, picked up the sport first, followed by their father, Paul Reback, a former marathoner. Laura was a standout swimmer and runner as a teenager and won her age group in the first triathlon she entered.
"She never rode the bike, but she won the thing," Paul Reback said. "Literally, we got her a bike, she rode it, and she won the thing."
The sport remains a major part of family life. Bennett met Greg, an Australian who finished fourth in the 2004 Olympic triathlon, in 2000, and the couple have been training partners since. Greg is now a U.S. citizen and focusing on longer triathlon distances.
At Sunday's Boulder Peak race, John Reback placed 14th in the men's elite division, while Paul, 71, competed in the 70-74 age group. They will be part of a dozen members of the extended family traveling to London to watch Bennett race through Hyde Park.
"She seems to be much calmer. We're all calmer," Paul Reback said. "I'll tell you what, when she didn't make it in London last year, she really wanted this. Her race in San Diego was the way she's going to have to race in London."
The flat bike and run courses in and around Hyde Park might not favor an athlete such as Bennett, a strong swimmer who logs her bike miles in the mountain terrain near Boulder. The Olympic course includes a 1,500-meter swim, a 43-kilometer (26.7 miles) bike ride and a 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) run.
"For Laura, the ideal race is a small group away on the bike and an incredible team time trial to keep off the chasers behind," Greg Bennett said.
The British team includes a "domestique" — a swim-and-bike specialist — intended to help pace medal favorite Helen Jenkins in the first two legs. That could help Bennett as well. If Bennett can gain some separation with a lead pack after the bike, she's confident her running has improved enough to improve upon her 2008 results.
"I think it's going to be on from the get-go. The moment that horn goes, it's going to be flat out until the finish," Bennett said.
Women's U.S. teamLaura Bennett, 37, Boulder, fourth in Beijing in 2008; first-time Olympians Gwen Jorgensen, 26, Milwaukee; and Sarah Groff, 30, Hanover, N.H.
Women's medal favorites: Helen Jenkins, Great Britain; Emma Moffatt, Australia; Andrea Hewitt, New Zealand; Nicola Spirig, Switzerland
Men's U.S. team: Hunter Kemper, 36, Colorado Springs, a four-time Olympian; Manuel Huerta, 28, Miami, a first-time Olympian and Cuban immigrant
Medal favorites: Brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, Great Britain; Javier Gomez, Spain; Alexander Bryukhankov, Russia