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BAY WATCH

Some familiar faces will dot the sea of athletes in Sydney. Here are some with strong Tampa Bay ties.

MICHELE SMITH

Michele Smith has lived on the Pinellas beaches for several years now, but you would never know that by her schedule.

The gold-medal winning pitcher from the 1996 Olympic softball team spends a good chunk of her year in Japan where she is a spokeswoman for Toyota and the finest softball player in the country. Smith, 32, has won the league's MVP award four times since 1994, including last year when she had an 0.10 ERA and led the league with a .310 batting average.

She figures she logs more than 200,000 miles a year in airplanes while flying from Tampa to Japan and various points between.

Smith went 2-0 for the United States in the '96 Olympics and is expected to be the team's No. 2 pitcher behind Lisa Fernandez this year.

CURTIS JOHNSON

Back when he was winning state sprint championships, his nickname around Palmetto High was Bullet. And for the longest time, thereafter, it looked like this bullet was a blank.

A four-time state champion at 100 and 200 meters, Johnson won back-to-back USA Juniors titles in the 100 meters in 1990-91. And from there his career seemed to fade. He went from the University of Florida to Manatee Community College to the University of North Carolina without making much impact.

He also spent time laying carpets and working as a carpenter. He'd had a brief career as a football player for the Tar Heels and briefly considered trying out for the NFL. The turnaround came in 1998 when Johnson moved to southern California and began working with John Smith's famed HSI sprint group that included Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon.

By the end of last year, having put a string of injuries behind him, he had moved into the top 10 rankings in the United States at 100 meters. At the Olympic trials in July in Sacramento, Johnson gave HSI a stunning sweep in the 100 meters by qualifying third behind Greene and Boldon.

His 10.07 at the trials should make him the No. 9 seed going into Sydney.

JOHN CAPEL

Two months ago, John Capel was a mere blip on the track and field scene. A sprinter of some promise who may have jeopardized his Olympic hopes by dropping out of the University of Florida and training on his own.

That was before Capel won the most anticipated race of the year _ the 200-meter sprint at the Olympic trials _ as Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene dropped out with injuries.

In the past week, Capel raised his profile even further with a exchange of barbs with Greene in CNN/SI diaries.

"He was walking around right afterwards with no ice or anything when he had to go in for post-race drug testing," Capel wrote about Greene after the infamous 200 at the trials. "I think he was faking because he didn't want it to seem like he had gotten beat by some college kid."

Capel, a Brooksville native, is the No. 1 seed heading into Australia. His 19.85 at the trials was the world's fastest time this year other than Johnson, who did not qualify to run the 200.

BROOKE BENNETT

Brooke Bennett is not the same competitor who replaced Janet Evans as the world's premier distance swimmer while winning gold in the 1996 Olympics.

She is now better.

Bennett, 20, has shaved four seconds off her gold-medal winning time in the 800 freestyle from Atlanta and she has increased the gap between herself and the rest of the world. Bennett, a Plant City native now living in Valrico, has a chance to join Evans as the only female swimmers to repeat in the 800.

"The 800 is very important to me to go back, four years later, and win at trials and go back to the Olympics and win it again," said Bennett, who won by nearly five seconds at last month's Olympic trials.

"I think that would really say something about distance swimming and even myself. Coming from 16 to 20 and really staying with it and staying strong and staying fast in between those four years."

Bennett has not formally announced her intentions to shoot for an unprecedented third distance medal at Athens in 2004, but it clearly seems to be in her thoughts. She is a year younger than Evans was at the same point in her career and, unlike Evans, is going faster the second time around.

"This is her event. She owns it and she doesn't want to relinquish it," said Bennett's coach Peter Banks. "That's Brooke. She's just determined. She's a great racer, a great competitor. When it's time to race, she gets up and does the job. That's the fire in her."

Not only is Bennett expected to repeat in the 800, she also is a contender at 400 meters after failing to qualify in that event in Atlanta.

She would likely have to swim a personal record to win the 400, but it would not be a shock for Bennett to win a silver or bronze.

"The 400 left a big hole for me in '96," Bennett said. "I've been waiting a long time to correct that."

BOBBY SEAY/MATT WHITE

They have been the golden boys in the Devil Rays minor league system for years. Now Bobby Seay and Matt White will try to do the same for the USA.

With professional baseball players allowed in the Olympics for the first time this year, major league baseball had to send top minor league prospects to Sydney because the big leaguers could not leave during the regular season.

White, 22, and Seay, 22, are expected to pitch in relief for the United States.

"I've always enjoyed pitching for the (national) team," said Seay, who has played in the junior Olympics and the Pan American Games. "It's a different atmosphere. It's a little more fun, a little more relaxed."

White and Seay have been Pinellas County residents since the Rays signed them with two of the largest amateur free agent contracts in history in 1996. White received a record $10.2-million bonus while Seay, out of Sarasota, was given a $3-million bonus.

Since then they have moved steadily _ if a little slowly _ up Tampa Bay's minor league ladder.

Not every major league organization was receptive to sending prospects to Australia, but the Rays saw the Olympics as a better alternative than calling the duo up to the majors in September and having them sit on the bench.

The Rays also are sending second baseman Brent Abernathy and catcher Pat Borders to Australia.

Up next:BOXING

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