Swimmer Trades Pain For Gain Benner Renews Olympic Dream By Turning To Marathon Races
The world of marathon swimmers is filled with uncertainty.
Unlike their short-distance brethren, marathoners don’t have the comfort of swimming in climate-controlled pools divided neatly into lanes for each swimmer.
Instead, ocean swells and river currents do their best to push and pull competitors off their frigid course. Race conditions vary from hour to hour, and mile to mile, as swimmers struggle against the elements in search of victory.
The only thing these endurance athletes can really count on is pain, and there is little solace in knowing that, as a race progresses, one’s body will begin trying to shut down.
For Pullman’s Jay Benner, the pleasure in long-distance swimming comes from rising to meet the challenge and pushing his body to the limit. The rewards for his efforts are an opportunity to compete professionally - and maybe a second chance at swimming in the Olympic Games.
As a two-time All-American at the University of Washington, Benner seemed destined for glory.
A national finalist from 1985-88, he was ranked as high as 16th in the world in the 800-meter freestyle in 1988, and he devoted an entire year to training for the ‘88 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Six weeks prior to the trials, Benner contracted a stomach virus while swimming at an international meet in San Diego. Despite the illness, he won the 800 and placed third in the mile, but in subsequent weeks his health went downhill.
With his energy sapped, Benner finished ninth in the 1,500 at the trials - one spot away from making it into the final heat.
Benner returned to UW to finish his degree and quit swimming for the first time in his life. Eight months and an extra 40 pounds later, Benner knew something was missing and returned to the water, where he concentrated on long distances.
Benner won the first race he entered, in Penticton, British Columbia, and quickly developed a passion for the open waters.
“The mental side is very much different from competing in the pool in that you have to really battle with the mind,” he said. “After hammering on your body for 6 hours, you have another 2 hours to go. It’s a long time and you’re pretty much in a world to yourself.”
Long-distance swimming requires a number of the same skills Benner used while training for the ‘88 Olympics, and it wasn’t long before he picked up a sponsor and began to compete internationally.
In 1994, he finished third at the U.S. 25-kilometer championships. This past February, he finished eighth in his first race as a professional in Santa Fe, Argentina.
The void he felt after failing to make the Olympics having been filled, Benner plans to compete on the nine-race pro tour.
“This is something I’ve developed a real passion for,” he said. “I love the pursuit of it. There’s definitely a different kind of satisfaction, because when you get done with a race like this, you’re completely wiped out. Your body is traumatized for a couple of days, and it’s a great experience.”
Long-distance swimming will be a demonstration sport in the 1996 Olympic Games, and for Benner the irony is sweet. The top two finishers at next year’s national 25K championships will represent the United States, putting Benner within range of fulfilling his long-lost dream.
“I did everything I could in ‘88 and it didn’t come out the way I wanted it, but it was a great experience and I wouldn’t have done anything different,” he said. “I never thought I’d have another shot at making another Olympic team, and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity now.”