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The Big Event // BENNETT'S BIG CHANCE

WHAT: Women's 800-meter freestyle final.

WHEN: Swimming finals begin at 7:33 p.m.

THE FAVORITE: Plant City's Brooke Bennett, 16.

Australian Hayley Lewis, the No.1 800 freestyler in the world last year and the 1992 silver medalist, swam poorly in the preliminaries and did not qualify for the final. Her American rival, Janet Evans, has not been swimming well during these Olympics. And Bennett has the top time in the world this year.

This is Bennett's one shot at a medal in Atlanta. Though she is unlikely to challenge Evans' world record, a gold medal would secure her position as America's top distance swimmer.

THE CHALLENGERS: Germany's Dagmar Hase could make sure that neither American takes home gold. Hase, who had the second-fastest preliminary time, won silver in the 400 free Monday. Also challenging for a medal will be Hase's teammate Kerstin Kielgass and Britain's Sarah Hardcastle, the 1984 Olympic bronze medalist who won Evans' heat.

THE VETERAN: After her performance in Wednesday's prelims of the 800, it does not appear Evans, 24, will win her record-tying fifth Olympic gold medal. She qualified sixth, and until the last heat she was unsure she had earned a berth in the final.

Her two swims in this Olympics (she failed to qualify for the 400 free final) have been unimpressive. But Janet Evans is Janet Evans, and she has plenty of motivation to win gold in this event for the third straight time. There is her rivalry with the upstart Bennett, and the fact that she is trying to tie speed-skater Bonnie Blair's record of five Olympic gold medals by an American woman. And more than likely this will be Evans' final competitive swim.

"I think she's going to give it all she's got and come back real strong," Bennett told the Associated Press. "Hopefully, the United States will come out on top 1-2."

_ SHARON GINN

The finalists

BROOKE BENNETT: U.S., 8:32.38.

DAGMAR HASE: Germany, 8:33.55.

KERSTIN KIELGASS: Germany, 8:36.33.

SARAH HARDCASTLE: Britain, 8:37.54.

IRENE DALBY: Norway, 8:37.73.

JANET EVANS: U.S., 8:38.08.

KIRSTEN VLIEGHUIS: Netherlands, 8:39.73.

CARLA LOUISE GEURTS: Netherlands, 8:39.85.

Past winners

1992: Janet Evans, U.S., 8:25.52.

1988: Janet Evans, U.S., 8:20.20 (Olympic record).

1984: Tiffany Cohen, U.S., 8:24.95.

1980: Michelle Ford, Australia, 8:28.90.

1976: Petra Thuemer, East Germany, 8:37.14.

1972: Keena Rothhammer, U.S., 8:53.68.

1968: Debbie Meyer, U.S., 9:24.0.

World record

JANET EVANS: U.S., 8:16.22 (1989).

Top times

of 1996

BROOKE BENNETT: U.S., 8:30.54.

DAGMAR HASE: Germany, 8:33.55.

JANET EVANS: U.S., 8:33.60.

KERSTIN KIELGASS: Germany, 8:36.33.

HAYLEY LEWIS: Australia, 8:36.72.

STACEY GARTRELL: Australia, 8:36.96.

CHEN YAN: China, 8:37.41.

Top times

of 1995

HAYLEY LEWIS: Australia, 8:28.78.

BROOKE BENNETT: U.S., 8:29.21.

JANET EVANS: U.S., 8:31.90.

JULIA JUNG: Germany, 8:32.15.

TRINA JACKSON: U.S., 8:33.98.

CRISTINA TEUSCHER: U.S., 8:34.65.

Bennett looking good

The 800-meter freestyle prelims couldn't have gone much better for Brooke Bennett on Wednesday morning. She had the fastest time of anyone in the four heats _ 8:32.38 _ and her chief rival, Hayley Lewis of Australia, failed to qualify. Janet Evans qualified sixth.

Kristen Vlieghuis, 8:39.73

Irene Dalby, 8:37.73

Kerstin Kielgass, 8:36.33

Brooke Bennett, 8:32.38

Dagmar Hase, 8:33.55

Sarah Hardcastle, 8:37.54

Janet Evans, 8:38.08

Carla Guerts, 8:39.85

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