From underdog to Olympian: Billy Bender’s journey from worst to first on Dartmouth’s rowing team

Oliver Bub and Bill Bender, both Dartmouth College students, have qualified for the Olympic rowing team in Paris. Row2k.com

By Katy Savage

April 26, 2024

Billy Bender wasn’t the best guy on the Dartmouth College rowing team at first—far from it.

“I was the worst guy,” he said. “I had good grades and I was a local kid. I kept going to (the coach’s) office begging for a spot. And finally, he was like, ‘Yeah, if I recruit you, will you leave me alone?’” Bender said. “He took a shot on me, which I’m grateful for.”

Bender said he was an athletic recruit. Dartmouth sports teams have to maintain a certain cumulative grade point average and the coach thought Bender’s academic accomplishments could boost the team’s GPA.

The coach required him to take a gap year and go practice on a rowing club in the UK.

“That’s when I started to get good,” said Bender. “I continued to improve at Dartmouth.”

Now, Bender, 22, is getting ready to go to the Olympics this summer. He qualified for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics in Sarasota, Florida earlier this month with another Dartmouth College student— 2020 grad Oliver Bub. Bub and Bender won the men’s pair in the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Team Trials.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Bub said in an interview with Rowing News. “I think this is something I’ve dreamed about for a long time, so to come out here and get it done on the day means a lot.”

They weren’t on the same team at Dartmouth, but they competed in pairs together in 2022, when Bender took the winter term of his junior year off to join the California Rowing Club, where he happened to be paired with Bub.

They both tried to qualify for the Olympics individually, but neither made it. They paired up three weeks before the trials in an attempt to qualify together.

In pairs, each person holds only one oar. Bender rows the left side, while Bub rows the right and they communicate to synchronize.

They aren’t the only two athletes with Dartmouth ties who are heading to Paris. Molly Reckford, who graduated from Dartmouth in 2015, also made the team. This will be Reckford’s second time at the Olympics. She finished fifth in the lightweight women’s double sculls at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games with Michelle Sechser.

Bender, who grew up in Norwich, Vermont, didn’t start rowing until he was a 14-year-old at Hanover High School. He was also the captain of the ski team and he ran cross country. He started rowing just to follow his older siblings’ footsteps.

“It just kind of seemed like what you did,” he said.

Bender’s older brother got the entire Bender family into rowing. His older sister also rowed.

“Most of his childhood that he can remember now we got dragged into the sport entirely from our son,” Bender’s father, also named Bill, said. “And then all of his siblings followed.”

The older Bender credits his son’s coach with the younger’s success. Dartmouth coach Wyatt Allen won gold and set a world record at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. Four years later, he won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympic Games.

“Having had rowing success, he knows what it takes,” the older Bender said. “He can be the in-your-face-screaming coach and then he can be the put his-arm-around-your-shoulder coach. I think he has created a kind of spectacular culture.”

The place Bender grew up also has a long history of producing Olympians. A total of 11 people in the 3,500-population town have made it.

The rural Vermont town is a stone’s throw from Dartmouth College, home to many Dartmouth graduates.

“The kids are very outdoor oriented and usually multi-sport oriented,” Bender’s father said.

Bender’s coaches at Hanover High School were also well experienced and highly successful rowers.

Bender, who was expected to graduate from Dartmouth this spring, is taking time off to prepare for the Olympics. He is in California now, where practices twice a day, from 6:30-9 a.m. and then worksout on a rowing machine in the afternoon. He also lifts weights three times a week.

He’ll train at Princeton with Bub and then go train in Italy for a final Olympic preparation camp. He’ll go to Paris a couple days before the games start on July 26.

Author

  • Katy Savage

    Katy Savage is an award-winning reporter with more than 10 years of experience working in daily, weekly and digital news organizations as both an editor and reporter. Based in Enfield, Katy is a New England native and has a passion for telling stories about where she grew up.

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