When a high school sports program loses a once-in-a-generation athlete, often the program is never the same.
Two seasons ago, the Verona/Mount Horeb girls swim team graduated an Olympic hopeful and current University of Wisconsin standout, Beata Nelson.
Nelson, now a sophomore with the Badgers, shattered records and earned 12 WIAA individual state championships for Verona/Mount Horeb. She earned an invitation to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team trials.
But the Wildcats’ cupboard was left far from bare.
Over the past three years, another swimmer — junior Grace Bennin — has made a name for herself in the Verona/Mount Horeb program.
Grabbing the torch passed down by Nelson, Bennin helped lead the Wildcats to a runner-up finish in last year’s WIAA Division 1 state meet — the best Division 1 finish in program history.
As a freshman, Bennin joined Nelson, then a senior, on the 200-yard medley and 200 freestyle relays. Both crews won state championships.
Though they are three years apart, Bennin was eager to learn from Nelson, both inside and outside the pool.
“I learned how to work as hard as I could and really give it my all,” Bennin said. “Seeing her beat state records and go to the Olympic Trials, learning that all the hard work you do really does pay off.”
Said Bennin: “Outside the pool, I learned how to be a leader and to be humble. Beata was such a humble person and always congratulated everybody. I learned how to be a better person from her.”
Humility and hard work has paid dividends for Bennin. As a sophomore in last year’s state meet, she took first in the 100 breaststroke (1:02.13), second in the 50 freestyle and third as part of the 200 freestyle relay team.
This year, Bennin ranks second in the state in both the 200 individual medley (2:06.44) and 50 freestyle (:23.64). She has the state’s best time in the 100 breaststroke (1:04.60).
In last Saturday’s Big Eight Conference meet, Bennin broke her own conference record (set as a freshman) in the 100 breaststroke, with a time of 1:05.13.
Bennin didn’t know what she had done until the coaches told her. “I was actually really surprised,” said Bennin. “I was like ‘whoa!’ I was super excited about it.”
With all of this success, there is little wonder why people compare Bennin and Nelson.
“They both are really intense competitors,” said Wildcats coach Bill Wuerger. “The higher the level of competition, the more they are going to step up their game to beat the competition.”
Senior Sophie Henshue, who won the Big Eight title last week in the 500 freestyle (5:07.65), also has noticed a connection between Nelson and Bennin.
“They both have sort of the same goofy personality. I love them both to death,” Henshue stated. “They both have any characteristic you would ever see in a leader — they carry the team really well and they get everyone’s adrenaline going.”
The Wildcats finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Eight regular season (7-2 in dual meets), behind last year’s state champion (and this year’s top-ranked) Middleton. The Wildcats then took fourth in the conference meet, and are ranked No. 4 in the state in Division 1.
Verona/Mount Horeb will make its run for the state tournament on Saturday, competing in a WIAA Division 1 sectional at Middleton.
Wuerger believes in Bennin’s individual state chances, but also knows the impact she can have on her teammates.
“Teammates on a relay with her think we have Grace Bennin on this relay, so we have a shot (and) we are going to give it everything we have to make this relay do as well as possible,” Wuerger said.
After graduating a strong senior class, it would be natural for Bennin to feel pressure as the conference and sectional meets approach. But she says the pressure to succeed is always there.
“I always put pressure — I’ve put pressure on myself since freshman year, even with Beata,” Bennin said. “I like to think of it as a whole team, and making sure the team is doing the best they can. I always try to do the best I can personally and encourage everyone else to do that, too.”