Some precocious, young athletes set lofty goals at an early age. Others, like runner Fran ten Bensel, arrive at them incrementally, almost unexpectedly.
Sitting in the nearly bare dining room of her functional Boston apartment several weeks ago, ten Bensel reflected on her metamorphosis from small-town farmer's daughter with limited aspirations to world-class runner with an eye on the Olympics.
For the past year, ten Bensel has lived and trained in Boston as a member of the New Balance track team, her main focus being preparations for the United States Olympic Track and Field Trials in Atlanta in June.
She didn't make the US team, finishing 10th in the finals. Only days later, however, she set off to race the European circuit for the first time with long-range thoughts of possibly making the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
"I committed myself 'big time' this year," she says of her "tunnel vision" training for the Olympic trials. "Moving all the way to Boston was huge. I like the city. I didn't think I would, but everything is so hustle-bustle and everybody is living on top of each other."
Given her druthers, ten Bensel would still be living in Nebraska. She grew up on a hog farm in Arapahoe, a
community of roughly 1,000 people, where she belonged to 4-H, showed livestock, and did the "sewing, cooking thing."
She followed two older sisters into track, running in local meets sponsored by the Amateur Athletic Union as a junior-high-schooler. "I showed a lot of talent," she says.
The international world of track and field was so distant, however, that it hardly registered in her viewfinder. Limited to glimpses of televised Olympic track every four years, she says she didn't understand the sport that well and knew little or nothing about the top runners.
"The people I looked up to were small potatoes," she says of her Nebraska high school and college heroes.
Originally a 200- and 400-meter runner, ten Bensel fell in love with the 800 in high school and was tops in the state at that distance.
College recruiters in the region expressed interest, but she lacked confidence in her own ability. "I was scared to go to a Division I [major college] school; I didn't think I could run track at that level," she says.
She changed her mind after talking with a couple of small-town athletes who had made it at the University of Nebraska. She enrolled as a "sleeper" on a partial scholarship, progressed quickly, and earned a full ride within two years.
"That was like a dream to be able to go the University of Nebraska and be part of the athletic program there," ten Bensel says. "My whole town was excited."
Her college coach felt ten Bensel should be running longer races and persuaded her to take up cross-country, which her high school hadn't offered.
Distance running initially didn't appeal to her, but she was a convert by her junior year, when she became the first Cornhusker to win the Big Eight Conference cross-country title. On the track, she developed into one of the country's best collegiate 3,000-meter runners.
Taking a year off from college track to do even more serious training for the 1992 Olympic trials, ten Bensel recorded personal bests in both the 3,000 and 1,500 at the trials, managing an impressive seventh-place finish in the latter event. "That was the biggest race of my life," she says. "It was a big shocker to everyone, my family, my coach, and me."
As encouraging as the result was, she quickly found herself in a state of limbo familiar to many graduating college athletes. Should she train and try for the '96 Games? Self-doubt crept in as she saw some of her college friends go off to begin careers, marry, start families, and buy homes.
Eventually she hopes to pursue a career in journalism or advertising. For now, though, she has decided to take part-time jobs and see how far running will take her. "I just keep thinking I don't have to make money," she says. "My goal in life is not to be a millionaire. I think God gave me a talent and you should use it to the best of your ability and not throw it away."