"Fourth was very, very disheartening," Bennett said. "And to kind of look back and say sometimes, 'Was that my best?' I didn't realize it at the time, but was that my best chance to medal? I was one of the favorites to win one, and when you're there, sometimes you don't really realize it."
Bennett's husband, training partner and chief advisor, Australian Greg Bennett, was also an elite triathlete. At the 2004 Athens Games, he finished — you guessed it — fourth.
"They both know what it feels like," said Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon's high performance general manager. ". . . I think she'd be here anyway, but I think she's fueled so much more by not having that medal. They really planned their last four years on a medal here."
Saturday, Bennett couldn't deliver, finishing 17th. And in fourth, 10 seconds out of a medal in an event that takes more than two hours: American Sarah Groff. At the finish line, she cried.
"Fourth is the worst position," she said.
At least Bennett's performance in Beijing and Groff's here came with something to look forward to: another chance, albeit four years away. Phelps long ago turned his golds into endorsement deals for mainstream corporations, Gillette and Subway and others. But in order for less prominent Olympians to capitalize on their performances, they must have the right narrative.
Robert Stone, the vice president of licensing at Excel Corp., a sports licensing firm, said members of the favored U.S. women's soccer team, for instance, can't expect new marketing opportunities without a third straight gold medal. Others, though, might spin their heartache into opportunity.
"Let's not kid ourselves: Having a gold around your neck is, without question, an amazing value," Stone said. "But Americans also love rooting for the underdog, that comeback story. . . . There can be a twist with that fourth-place finisher that a consumer will say, 'Oh my God. How great is that? She works so hard.'"