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Hometown favorite

At the Brandon Swim & Tennis Club, lane eight of the pool has always been called the "gold lane."

"Every morning at 5 a.m. you can see the fastest swimmers doing laps over there," said Laura Sturm, 16, a member of the Blue Wave swim club, as she pointed to the farthest left lane. "Brooke's never swam anywhere else."

And after the Olympic women's final of the 800-meter freestyle, it seemed lane eight couldn't have been more aptly named. Brooke Bennett, a 16-year-old from Plant City who has trained at the Brandon club for seven years, struck gold.

And from Sturm, a teammate of Bennett's, and about 100 other members of the Brandon club who gathered in front of a big-screen TV Thursday night to cheer on the skinny girl with long arms and braces, one reaction was louder than most: We told you so.

"That kid has trained so long, so hard for this, everybody here knew she would win," said Kevin McGrath, president of the Booster Club. "Brooke's more dedicated than most people I know, and in swimming, there's nothing that beats raw determination."

One youngster, who learned from Bennett how to move her hands while swimming the breaststroke, agreed. "You could just tell by the way she kicked," said Amanda Steele, 9, of Brandon. "Anybody who saw her swim knew she would win."

During the 8{ minutes of the race, club members shouted their encouragement to Bennett as she began to pull away from the pack and into the lead she would command for the entire race.

"Do it, Brooke, do it!" screamed Jamie Wolczynski, a 13-year-old swimmer who said he hopes to make the qualifying rounds of the 2004 Olympics.

And Wolczynski's goal might not be so dreamy. The Blue Wave has a record of all-stars. This year, under the tutelage of coach Peter Banks, the club will send 10 juniors (14-and-under) and four seniors to compete in the National Championships in August in Fort Lauderdale. Parents watching Bennett compete Thursday night explained what it takes to raise a champ.

"A lot of driving, a lot of support and helping them through those periods where kids want to quit," said Mary Barker of Brandon, who has two children on the Blue Wave team.

The club had confidence Bennett wouldn't quit before reaching her goal. A small sign outside the club reads "Home of Brooke Bennett." By the entrance is a poster with the address and phone number where Bennett is staying in the Olympic Village. Next to the pool, not far from lane eight, is a board with pool records and gold stars by the five entries for Brooke Bennett.

Wasn't anybody worried that Janet Evans, the highly decorated swimmer and two-time winner of the Olympic 800-meter freestyle, would touch the wall before the hometown favorite?

"There's not one person in this room who didn't have faith she would do it," said McGrath, sweeping his arm toward the clump of jubilant children and adults smiling in front of the TV. "I told you so."