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SO FAR, SO GOOD

Brooke Bennett not only avoided catastrophe Wednesday morning. She made reservations for the gold medal platform during tonight's medal ceremony.

One, please. Arriving about 7:45 p.m. Table in the middle preferred.

Bennett, the 16-year-old distance swimmer from Plant City, posted the best qualifying time during Wednesday morning's preliminaries for the 800-meter final. She swam an 8:32.38, 1.17 seconds better than the second-best qualifier, 400 freestyle silver medalist Dagmar Hase of Germany.

For the U.S. swimmers, getting past the qualifying heats has been a tougher challenge than the finals. Janet Evans, Tom Dolan and Jon Olson all failed to qualify for events this week. Bennett, however, had no problems.

"I wasn't as nervous as I thought I would be," she said. "I felt comfortable. I didn't worry about not qualifying. I just thought of it as a morning swim _ get used to the water, the crowd. Hopefully, I'll come back tomorrow top dog."

The race not only will be Bennett's first in the Olympics, it will be her last showdown with Evans, who qualified sixth for the final.

For Evans, 24, it will the final race of her career, and her final chance to equal Bonnie Blair's record of five gold medals by an American woman. Evans swam only 8:38.08, then had to watch the final heat to be sure she had a spot in the finals. Her time was 22 seconds behind her 8-year-old world record, and five seconds slower than she swam at the Olympic trials in March.

"I was a little worried about (her making it)," said U.S. women's coach Richard Quick. "I'm sure she would've liked to have gone faster. Obviously it's going to be a challenge. But never underestimate the heart of a champion."

Evans made brief remarks after the race, and seemed edgy. She also was limping noticeably, which she assured was no big deal, though she admitted she swam with a broken toe after stubbing it against furniture in her living quarters.

Bennett seemed glad that Evans made the final.

"I think she's going to come back real strong," Bennett said. "Hopefully, the United States will come out on top 1-2."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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