By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Sarah Denninghoff Bennett had made the National Team, was ready to go to the Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool, and was really starting to find her form at the University of Texas, and then her swimming life came to a halt with a hip injury. She’s back, and what she’s learned along this journey has taught her a lot about life, as she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How’s swimming going?
Sarah: It’s going well. I’m starting to train fully again which is really exciting.
2. You were out last year right?
Sarah: I don’t know if you know but I had hip surgery. I tore my labrum in my hip a while ago, and now I am finally healed and ready to train again.
3. What was something that helped you get through it?
Sarah: I think my teammates and my coaches and my family helped a lot. They were there for me when I really needed them. I think especially (UT head coach) Carol (Capitani) and (Assistant coach) Roric (Fink) were always telling me that when you get knocked down, you come back even stronger. I am not sure how this summer is going to go, but I am excited.
4. How did this happen, because you had such a great summer last year swimming, right?
Sarah: I injured myself in October 2013, and I had the surgery in December. Yes, exactly, I did have a really strong summer, and I was talking to Carol about that the other day in that it’s a blessing that I saw last summer what I could be as a swimmer. Had I not had that experience, I might have moved on and not finished my career. Life is great both inside and outside the pool.
5. You left your home state and the University of Arizona to come to Texas, how did that transition go?
Sarah: I think really the people just welcomed me into the family and I felt at home. I am a really big family person, so it was hard to leave Arizona because I love Arizona and my family. But then, I really felt like I came home when I came to Texas. Carol and Roric have created such a great environment with family, academics and swimming.
6. And yet you are still fond of Arizona too, right?
Sarah: I did learn a lot at Arizona. I wouldn’t be the athlete that I am if I hadn’t gone through the experiences and met such great and wonderful people at the University of Arizona.
7. You get to hang out and train with one of the coolest people in the swimming community, Laura Sogar, what’s it like to have her as a friend and resource?
Sarah: Laura Sogar she is so funny. She brings such a happy personality to workout each day. She is always pulling pranks and thinking of YouTube videos. She brings laughter to the pool deck, which isn’t the easiest thing to do at 5 a.m. We’re so glad to train with her.
8. What happened with your hip on the injury?
Sarah: My hip was a little too big, so they had to shave down the bone a little bit as well as replace the labrum. So there was some overuse, and it got to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore. But they really did a great job repairing it, and I am grateful to everyone involved in fixing it and helping me heal and get better.
9. All places are different, what did Texas bring to you as a swimmer?
Sarah: I think my training is different now. But I think really it was my mentality, and that’s where it all starts. Carol and Roric work a lot on coming to practice every day and understanding what you are grateful for. It really changed my swimming in such a wonderful way. You come to practice, get in the water, and just swim for a while at first and think about what you are grateful for in life. At 5 a.m., you are not (laughs) always grateful for a lot of things! But when your coach tells you to just swim and think about it, here you are in this amazing pool, at this great school at the University of Texas that thousands of great swimmers have competed in – the best in the world – how could anyone not be grateful for this situation? So you wake up every day in this great situation with talents and abilities that God has blessed you with. I love that mentality. I am very thankful for so many meaningful things.
10. With the comeback and that challenge, how do you face it?
Sarah: It really is something to be thankful for, to have this opportunity. And I am excited for the future. I went through a little trial with this, but there is nowhere to go but up from here. Even though I was not able to compete, I still had such a fun year. I got married (two months ago, to Josh Bennett)! And I came to love being on the sidelines watching my teammates compete. Every practice means so much more now.
11. I remember when I was hurt watching practice. Did that help you in any way?
Sarah: I think I learned a lot about perspective, and about technique – when you watch people swim you learn more about technique. We have so many incredible people down here. One is my teammate Shelby Webber, who is a really, really positive person who is always smiling and making sure she is lifting other people up. Just watching her sometimes, I’d think, “I need to work on that and be more like that.” I know when we’re working on a drill, maybe I can help more and lead more. Seeing my teammates taught me a lot about what I could do to be better, and I am very grateful.
12. You mention being grateful while being out – how neat is that?
Sarah: Yes, and I really look back with gratitude even though it wasn’t what I would have picked out as far as the injury. But it has made me more focused on academics, swimming, and being a good wife.
13. Making the National Team is awesome and all the NCAA honors are great, but do you think maybe the lessons this last year has taught you will help you even more with life?
Sarah: Definitely. It’s not a bad situation I was in, and it is definitely something that has taught me a lot for the rest of my life. And I am really grateful for that. It has put some excitement and some desire in me – not that I didn’t have it before – but even more than before. The day I was supposed to be swimming the 100 backstroke at Duel in the Pool I was getting out of surgery, and then on crutches. That puts your life in perspective and kind of makes you want things more. I’m really excited to compete this summer, and next year for NCAAs. Every time I get on the blocks, I am so happy there.
14. And you have another year of eligibility still – while being a pro would be awesome, do you think that maybe coming back from injury it’s good to still be on the team?
Sarah: I am really excited about my final year. I think it’s not easy to be a post-grad, not that you are swimming alone, but you don’t have that same competition, which is something I need after the surgery and coming back. So I am really excited to compete for Texas another year in part because I have only done it one year at Texas, and it was an amazing experience.
15. Growing up and swimming in Tucson during the Frank Busch era, how incredible was that?
Sarah: I think one of the coolest things I got to do in high school was swim at Ford Aquatics, and train under Roric, who is now at UT. I got to watch the Arizona swimmers train before I got in the pool. I remember being in awe of them; they worked so hard and were so amazing. That was one thing that was really cool. Another thing I really liked was all the different kinds of people you can meet in Tucson; you never met the same kind of person twice in Tucson, yet you could learn and grow from everyone you met. Tucson also has this great swimming culture – I don’t know if it’s because (laughs) it’s 110 degrees! – but anyone who has been a swimmer there can talk about it.
16. How is school going and what are you doing?
Sarah: I am taking some education and some coaching classes and psychology classes and also courses in child development. It’s kind of this mixture to help you basically become a coach or teacher or community counselor. So I might go to grad school or even get a teaching certificate. What I want to do is help children, and to do that I have to understand their development. I love being around kids, they are just fascinating and their energy rubs off on you – plus, their little hearts are so big!
17. You come from a big family, how did that shape you?
Sarah: I think being part of a big family taught me independence but it also taught me a lot about if you want it, you have to go and get it. Here’s just one example that may or (laughs) may not answer your question: In our family we had a lot of food, but we also had a lot of us! So if you didn’t get to the food fast enough, it was gone! That’s a small picture, but it kept you alert and on your toes that you need to count on yourself to get things done, and to pay attention to what’s around you.
18. So I look at your times, and you are still amazing in the backstroke, but if I am not mistaken, you still are finding a lot of time in the freestyle – where are you at with events?
Sarah: I’d say I’m more a mid-distance – over 200 free and I am not that good. I like training a little bit longer sometimes, just to get that depth for the 200 free, because to be good at it you have to train pretty hard. You have to have a lot of energy in that last 50 to swim it fast. My freestyle has developed a lot with Carol because she has a different training style, and I just started learning how to train a lot more yardage and keep up!
19. What about the backstroke, will you focus more on the 100 or 200 heading into the run up to 2016?
Sarah: I think I’ll always do training for both, because training for the 100 helps the 200, and vice versa. Carol is very passionate about not making you just a one-race swimmer. She likes having me do multiple events and I really believe that makes you tougher. The 200 backstroke is pretty hard, but it’s a real race in every sense; someone can go out first and end up eighth if they do it wrong, or go out eight and end up first. It’s one of those races where for that last 75, it is just guts. I would never give up the 200 back because I love it so much. The 100 back is kind of like a flash. You just go as fast as you can the whole time. The 200 back is more about strategy.
20. You talk about your teammates like they are sisters and your coaches like they are family – swimming has been a pretty big part of who you are in life, hasn’t it?
Sarah: I do have great memories. I think the wonderful thing about swimming is the people you come in contact with and what you learn from them. If you don’t take time to remember those wonderful moments and write them down you will lose sight of that. That’s the thing about relays in swimming, no matter who you are with or where you are swimming, you remember those moments and those people forever. Those are the girls you have trained your heart out with, and they are the only ones who understand how hard you’ve worked because they’ve done that with you. Being a swimmer is a special part of your life, and the best part is everything you learn, you get to take with you into the rest of your life, and I am very grateful for the moments, and the people.