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BRAVO, BROOKE!

It was at the moment of her triumph that he came to her. Brooke Bennett clung to the side of the wall, and the cheers washed over her like the water she remained immersed in. A president applauded, the cameras rolled and the acknowledgement of the other swimmers began. To tell the truth, it felt a little bit like heaven.

And so no wonder it was that her grandfather came to visit.

The truth is, James Lane is never far from his granddaughter. So do you think he wouldn't show up to see Brooke win a gold medal? Who was going to keep him away?

So she floated there, and she smiled a small smile. And she thought of a grandfather who died in late April, of his face, of the way he took her to the pool for the first time.

This was for him, she said.

This was for a grandpa so close she called him Dad.

She is now the best distance swimmer in America. No longer does Bennett need to curtsy to Janet Evans' legacy, or wait in line for the cameras to get to her. The 800, always Evans' race, is Bennett's now.

Bennett staked her claim Thursday night, blowing away the field in the 800-meter freestyle. She led from start to finish, and at times was so far ahead of the field she would pass swimmers going the opposite way when she was almost a fourth of the way into her next lap.

Bennett said she knew she was going to win after 600 meters. Everyone watching knew it far sooner. From the first turn, they were not watching a race. They were watching a legend pass the torch.

This was not about Evans saying goodbye, however. This was about Bennett saying hello.

You might not have thought so. If you watched NBC or ESPN the past two days, the news was all about Evans, the four-time gold-medal winner who was swimming her last race. Bennett, who won the 800 at the trials and who qualified first in Wednesday's prelims, was all but ignored despite the fact that Evans this week has swum, pretty much, about like a sandbar. If Bennett was mentioned at all, it was as the brash kid who didn't give Evans enough respect.

Bennett ended all of that. She bobbed there in the pool, finally daring to flash her braces to the cameras. And she thought about a man she still misses every day.

In her image of him, Lane is cheering. Seemed he was always cheering Bennett. She called him Dad, well, because that's what her mother called him. And even as Bennett let the moment of triumph fill her, there was room for him.

"I'm sure he's jumping up and down upstairs," she said. "We were real close. He taught me how to swim. He would be so happy. Everyone at the pool would have known he was here. He would have been in Bill Clinton's lap."

There are times Bennett seems to revel in her image as a free spirit. She is 16, fun, ready to take on the world and give it a head start. By now, everyone knows about Noelle the pig, about the dogs and the cow and the chickens. About her six earrings in the left ear and three in the right. About her pierced navel. About her father's motorcycle. "I'm a wild child," she says.

But this was a different Bennett as she struggled for the right words to say about a man who meant so much to her. When Lane died, she said, it would have been easy for her to stop training. But she knew he would not have approved. "This is for him," she said.

Not that Bennett didn't have fun on the way to her win. She grinned and waved and listened to the cheers. And she thought about the payoffs she has coming.

There is the tattoo. She says it's coming any day now. She wants the Olympic rings on the inside of her right ankle. The ladybug and the frog can wait. The good news is, she has set her personal limit at three tattoos, lifetime.

There is the skydiving. She swears she is going to step out of an airplane soon. Her father tells her she's crazy. She rolls her eyes, as if to say that's the point.

There is motorcycle week in Daytona. She says she's going this year. To watch, not to ride, although she will wear the leather jacket, vest and chaps. She tugs at her sweats. "I can get out of these and into leathers real fast," she said.

There is the Jeep Wrangler, which would worry her grandfather. He worried a lot about her going too fast in a car. Not in the pool, though.

What? You thought success would change Bennett? Turn her typical? Not a chance.

For one thing, you might have thought she would be nervous from the magnitude of the evening. This was the Olympics, after all, and it can crush a competitor's insides like a trash compactor. Bennett had not swum the entire Olympics, and this was the race she had pointed to since March. But when she hit the deck, the jitters vanished. She might as well have been swimming a meet for the Brandon Blue Wave.

Bad news for the rest of the field, but she was ready. She swam smooth, easy. Most importantly, she swam fast.

"This was a dream come true," said Bennett, who isn't old enough to have had that many dreams. Evidently, however, she is old enough to handle success.

You want the truth? What Bennett said about Evans, whether she meant it or not, wasn't any big deal. It was Evans' reaction that made it a story. It was Evans hinting at drugs this week that have tainted the medals of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith.

Yet, Bennett managed a graciousness toward Evans Thursday night. She did not allow her victory to stand in the way of Evans' memory. She allowed Evans her final bows without envy.

"Janet will always be the queen of swimming," she said. "I have only started. She's got all those gold medals and national titles and world records. She is always going to be the queen.

"I think she'll be like Mark Spitz, how you hear his name every four years and everything he accomplished. Janet will be the same way."

They asked her about her own legacy Thursday. Strange question. She is 16. Is that the age to talk about a legacy?

"Maybe I'll win as many gold medals as she did someday," she said. And maybe, someday, she will be recognized as the embodiment of greatness, too.

Maybe someday. When she is a marine biologist working on the Great Coral Reef and living in Australia. When she is a ski instructor on Tibet, giving advice to the Dalai Llama. When she is leader of a biker gang off the coast of Borneo. When she has her own stash of gold medals and records. But now? "Maybe in 20 years, they can remember me, too," she said.

For now, there are things to do. There is the 2000 Olympics. She wants to swim there. There is the world record. She wants that, too. Oh, and there is her junior year at Durant High in Plant City, which begins soon.

First, however, she has to come down. First, the child has to enjoy being a little wild.

If you're worried about her, it's all right. Her grandfather is with her.

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