Norwich’s Billy Bender Qualifies for World Rowing Championships

This summer, Norwich native and Hanover High School graduate, Billy Bender, had a decision to make. Head to the United States men’s senior team selection camp (where he had earned an automatic invitation) or try to make his second U.S. Under-23 rowing team (at a camp that was being held in his backyard at Dartmouth College).

Bender decided to push the boundaries by attending the senior team camp…and it paid dividends.

“I feel like I have always been the best athlete when I’m out of my comfort zone,” he said. “When these guys are better than me and I know I need to step up my game, that’s when I’ve been my best. Sometimes when you’re the best guy on a team or in an environment, it can become easy to be stagnant and complacent.”

Bender at the Dartmouth Boathouse

Now a two-time first team All-American at Dartmouth, Bender qualified for the World Rowing Championships in the men’s pair (two rowers sweeping with one oar each) after winning the USRowing Senior National Team Trials in late July. The championships run from September 3-10 in Belgrade, Serbia.

“Obviously, it’s super cool,” said Bender. “It’s coming a little faster than I thought it would.”

What Bender means is that in the days and weeks after qualifying, everything hadn’t quite set in.

“I raced for the U.S. two years ago for Under-23s,” he explained. “It will probably set in once I get over to Serbia, but it didn’t initially because the main competition that we raced (in the lead-up to the World Championships) were rowers I have competed with and against before – in U23s and the IRA National Regatta. 

“I think once I arrive to the world championships and I’m lining up against the best guys in the world, then it’ll really hit me,” Bender continued. “Right now, I’m training in Hanover. The gravity of it isn’t right in my face the way it will be (soon).”

Billy Bender

All this likely wouldn’t have been possible without Bender’s success at Winter Speed Order in Sarasota, Florida with Dartmouth alum Oliver Bub ’20. There, they finished third in the pair to earn automatic invitations to the first USRowing men’s senior selection camp in Princeton, New Jersey. 

This winter was also the first time Bender knew he truly belonged with the best of the best.

“I went out and was training with – and racing – the best guys in the country (at California Rowing Club), and I beat a lot of them,” he said. “The pair is obviously a very different boat than the eight (eight rowers sweeping with a coxswain), but that definitely made me think this isn’t a pipe dream.”

Which it wasn’t; it was reality.

From the first selection camp, Bub was named to the men’s eight. Bender was cut, but he had another opportunity to represent the Red, White and Blue.

“I called Wyatt Allen (Dartmouth’s Betsy and Mark Gates 1969 Head Coach of Men’s Heavyweight Rowing) and asked if it was worth trying to do some trial boat or come back to Hanover and reset for the year,” said Bender. “What was really clear about senior camp is I have to get faster on the erg. At Dartmouth, I have relied pretty heavily on my boat-moving abilities and my ability to win swaps. That works at the collegiate level and U23 level, but not at the senior level.”

After selection camp, Bender wasn’t sure if he should focus on training for his final season as a Big Green student-athlete or take another opportunity to reach the world stage in the pair.

“If I can just get more horsepower, get a bigger ‘engine,’ it will help me,” he said. “Wyatt obviously thought that was a good idea, but also said it may be worth going down (to senior trials in the pair) and seeing where I stacked up. Either way, it would be a good training opportunity (even) if I didn’t win.”

It ended up being both a valuable training opportunity and a win for Bender and his pair partner, Evan Olson.

The two initially met through a mutual connection. “We had a phone call and we got along, so Evan came up here to Hanover, we trained for a couple weeks and went down to New Jersey for trials,” said Bender.

Bender also knew he and Olson would have a reasonable chance for success in the pair, based on the competition.

“In some ways, the pair is slightly less contested than the single,” said Bender. “If you’re a good guy, you enter the single. In the pair, you need to find another good guy to row with and you have to match up and be in the same training location. There are a lot of good guys who can train by themselves and make a single go fast.”

Bender has been making boats go fast for some time. He began rowing at an early age, due in large part to his brother Ryan who rowed for Colgate University. Ryan originally joined the rowing team at Hanover High because next-door neighbor Blair Brooks was the freshman coach.

“We actually didn’t know this about Blair for a long time because he would never tell you, but he was a super successful rower back in his day,” said Billy. “He was captain of the mid-1970s Harvard crew that was called the ‘rude and smooth’ and they won everything. They were absolutely dominant.”

The Brooks connection got Bender’s brother Ryan into rowing, which led to Bender taking up the sport. Bender attended elementary school in Norwich where he grew up, then middle and high school in Hanover. He also rowed for the Upper Valley Rowing Foundation.

“The Hanover program is really fun and a good group of guys,” said Bender. “The coach, Andy Hilton, is great. The program was founded by Julie Stevenson, a former Dartmouth rower and current principal at Hanover High.

Hanover High varsity boat after a win at NEIRAS in 2019

“I was pretty proficient by the end of high school, maybe better than a lot of high school rowers, but there wasn’t very much time on the water,” Bender continued. “We were pretty limited by the rules, without that many water sessions. I didn’t build the fitness, strength and endurance necessary to be really strong.”

All that said, Bender was in a good place at the end of high school. 

Allen, a former Olympic gold medalist, played an integral role in getting Bender to Dartmouth, and his subsequent growth and improvement.

“Wyatt really took a chance on me, and he recruited me when I was still pretty slow on the erg,” said Bender. “He recruited me in my gap year. I went to Thames Rowing Club in London and lived and trained with them for the year, which was a great experience. That was when I got into a full-time training program and really started to take some steps forward in terms of my fitness.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit that year. Bender’s time in England was cut short, but was still worthwhile. 

It set the stage for an already decorated collegiate career, and it’s not over.

“Wyatt is a rockstar,” said Bender. “He’s such a resource because he’s been on a bunch of teams and he’s an Olympian. He knows the players, he knows the system and he’s been through it a bunch of times himself, so he can call up to coaches because they coached him or because he rowed with them. He’s got this unique perspective where he’s been through it a bunch of times as an athlete, so he knows what I’m thinking, feeling and worrying about.

“I didn’t really realize when I was looking at and committed to Dartmouth how lucky we are with Wyatt,” Bender added. 

The feelings are mutual.

Billy Bender rowing in a Dartmouth boat

“We definitely got lucky with Billy in the recruiting process,” said Allen. “We took a chance on him as a local kid with great grades, a good mentality and a promising frame, and he took his gap year opportunity and ran with it. It’s a real credit to him and his hard work in England. He walked in the door for his freshmen year way stronger, more skilled and he had even grown another inch or so.”

Bender is hoping to follow in his coach’s footsteps. Bender’s goal for the upcoming world championships is to finish top 11 out of 26 entries and qualify the boat for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

“It’s not necessarily guaranteeing our (Billy’s and Evan’s) seats, but it’s two more seats for America,” said Bender. “It’s another boat that America gets to send to the Olympics.”

There are two opportunities to qualify any boat, the first and most direct route being the world championships the year prior. The other is the final Olympic qualification regatta, which comes during the Olympic year.

“There are a lot of really good guys in the pair,” said Bender. “Great Britain has arguably their best guys in the pair, and a lot of small countries that don’t have the talent to field a good eight, they have two good guys who can make the pair go very fast. We’re pretty quick and we’re getting better. We haven’t been together for that long, but I believe it’s definitely possible.”

As Allen said, “Billy is one of the best boat movers I’ve had the opportunity to work with. Most impressively, he’s effective across all boat classes: he can scull, he can move a pair, and he’s really good in the eight. The fact that he’s had good results at the elite level this year with two different pairs partners is very impressive, especially given his relative young age.

“There’s no hiding in the pair,” Allen continued. “If you’re not holding up your end of the bargain, the boat is not going to go.”

Bender has aspirations to go and qualify for the 2024 Olympics, which makes him think of the John F. Kennedy quote: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

“I feel like I have to try,” said Bender. “I’m good enough that if I don’t try, I’ll look back in five years or ten years and think I should have tried. If I don’t make it, that’s okay, but I want to know I gave it my best shot.”

Before any Olympic dreams come the world championships, which run from Sept. 3-10, right before the start of the fall term at Dartmouth. From there, Bender would like to return to Dartmouth for the fall, then take the winter off to train and race at Speed Orders.

“By March, I would have a pretty good idea if I’d make a (U.S. Olympic) boat, or at least be in contention,” said Bender. “And if I’m not at the level, which is definitely a possibility, then I would come back to Dartmouth, race in the spring, and get on with my life. 

“If I think it’s a possibility that I could make a U.S. boat, then I would likely take the spring off (to train),” he added. 

At this point, Bender’s exact plan is far from finalized. But for now, he is focused on representing the Red, White and Blue in September. 

Regardless of what the near and distant future holds, Billy Bender will continue to push himself out of his comfort zone, which helped him reach the 2023 World Rowing Championships in the first place.

It’s something that will continue to define him as he moves forward, no matter what comes his way.

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