A couple of months ago when 17-year-old Bob Bennett broke the American record for the 100-meter backstroke, only one newspaper mentioned it. So Bob got smart. He waited for the biggest outdoor meet of the year on the West Coast, the Los Angeles Invitational, before he broke the record again. This time hundreds of papers mentioned it, especially since Bennett's time, 1:01.9, was only [4/10] of a second off the world record.
A lot more will be written about Bob Bennett before the summer ends. He seems a fair bet to become one of the brightest—as well as one of the youngest—stars of the U.S. Olympic swimming team. In fact, there are plenty of people in the San Fernando Valley, where Bob lives, who will tell you that he is going to be another Johnny Weismuller.
Bob Bennett lives in a California-style ranch-house-with-pool with his parents, a toy French poodle, two German shepherds, 11 puppies and his sister Patti, who was 14 in May and is a cute blonde and a good competitive swimmer, too. A B+ student, Bob will be a senior at Birmingham High School next fall, although he didn't attend classes there last semester. Instead, a private tutor helped him with his German and U.S. history courses. This was so Bob could have more time free to swim and rest. Anyone training to be an Olympic swimmer needs a lot of time for both.
Although he is a handsome and well-liked boy, Bob hardly ever dates any more. His cream-colored Opel, which he used to drive to school every day, sits in the garage these days—and nights. Bob is so tired after his twice-daily workouts that "by 8:30 I just don't want to stay up."
On a typical day—and typical days occur at least five times each week—Bennett is out of bed at 6 a.m. He slips into a pair of blue jeans cut off halfway above the knee, eats breakfast and heads for the pool. His shirtless, deeply tanned body is so well developed from swimming and from hours of work on the horizontal bar in his backyard that he looks not unlike Li'l Abner—except that he wears his brown hair in a crew cut.
In the pool, swimming the backstroke, Bob's demeanor is grim. His eyes often shut tight for several strokes in succession. He is watched closely by his coach, Kris Kristenson, a short, solidly built, friendly man who runs a swimming school in North Hollywood. Kristenson spent last summer coaching the U.S. women's Pan American team and has been guiding Bob toward the 1960 Olympics for eight years.
Bennett and Kristenson are not alone at 7 a.m. Other boys are swimming too, and so are a half dozen distractingly attractive young women in bright-red or blue tanksuits, smooth and wet-shiny in the early-morning glitter. Between swims, the girls curl into a spaghetti of thick towels and shiver a bit because there is still a slight nip in the air. Once in a while they steal a glance at Bob, who swims up and down the lane next to the wall.
During the brief rest periods, Bob often seems too preoccupied to notice the girls. He has had a lot to think about since the "double workouts" resumed in February—in fact, since the day three years ago when he became the first 14-year-old backstroker ever to swim 100 yards in less than a minute. That performance signaled the achievement of the first of a series of annual goals Kristenson set soon after Bob decided, at the age of 13, to give up all other sports and train for swimming.
"He's reached every goal we've set so far," says Kristenson. "With top athletes, a goal is vital. Without one, you never realize your full potential because you're too influenced by what those around you do."
The 1958 goal was a good showing for the 15-year-old boy in his first major national meet. Bennett finished a strong third in the AAU outdoor 100-meter backstroke, which Olympian Frank McKinney won. In 1959 the aim was to continue to improve while coping with the problem of living on the road. Bennett qualified for the American team that toured Japan last summer. "I had my first chance to find out what it's like to eat, sleep and race in strange places," he says. "Japan was great."
Bob was a big hit with Japan's teen-agers. The girls spotted his picture, noted he was the baby of the team, and made him their "number one." A Bobby Bennett fan club was formed, and 40 girls were at the airport the last day to wave goodby to "Bob-eee."
But the trip was tiring, and when Bob flew directly back to East Lansing, Mich, for the Pan American tryouts he finished fourth and missed the team. This year he has been on a selective diet of meets.
"We're even skipping the nationals," says Kristenson. "We want to have to reach only one peak—for the Olympic trials." Bennett will miss some valuable competitive experience in bypassing the nationals, but rest and regular training tend to outweigh this, especially since Bob has ample competition right at home. He has beaten Chuck Bittick, captain-elect of the USC swimming team, twice this summer at the Olympic distance of 100 meters. (Kristenson does not make too much of this. He feels that Bittick, who won four national indoor backstroke titles last winter, probably was overtrained. Chuck had been spending six hours daily training for both water polo and swimming. He eased up on the water polo three weeks ago to prepare for the Los Angeles Invitational meet, and although he lost to Bennett in the 100, he came back to set a world record at 200 meters the next day.)
Speed and strength
Bittick and L. B. Schaefer, who with Frank McKinney edged Bennett off the Pan American team, both force a race by blasting into an early lead. Bennett tends to rely on his strength and power at the finish to make up distance and gain a last-second victory. But Bittick and Schaefer are big and strong enough to preserve a good lead in the face of Bennett's closing rush.
"I race mostly against the clock," admits Bennett, "but I think I know enough now not to let anyone get too far out. I hope to move up earlier from now on, but I still won't let anyone pull me out too fast and spoil my finish."
Frank McKinney has not lost a race in a 50-meter pool since his second-place finish in the 1956 Olympics. He is an able strategist, and although he underwent an appendectomy this spring he is still the man to beat. "We're not forgetting McKinney for a minute," says Kristenson.
As McKinney, Bittick, Schaefer and Bennett battle for the two Olympic team berths, the pressure builds up into an odd war of nerves. For example, Kristenson points out that the others have done their best times after shaving their bodies, whereas Bennett has a faster time in the 100 and still hasn't shaved. He won't until the finals of the trials. Psychologically, and hirsutely, no one will have anything on Bobby Bennett in that race.