The Olympic Equation: Nordic Sprinter Jennie Bender
When Jennie Bender was thirteen years old, sitting in her Vermont home journaling about “making the Olympics in either running or skiing,” the often-harsh reality of an athletic career was probably a distant and uninteresting detail. Like the millions of children around the world who dream of a life in professional sports, there were probably visions of medals, travel and glory. In her words, the Olympics were “that big, far-off, magical life accomplishment,” and with an inclination toward endurance sports stemming from a childhood of running through fields and country roads, the dream, distant as it may have seemed, always felt right.
Today, the 29 year-old Jennie Bender is poised to follow through on the quest 15 years in the making as she continues one of her most successful seasons as a professional Nordic Sprinter, positioning her within striking distance of a spot on the US Olympic team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. As with all athletes, the world only ever sees the primetime climax of the journey, but the arc of Bender’s story travels to the edges of the human experience, through the unique joys and sorrows of living life with a solitary, uncompromising focus. Amidst a world of increasingly potent distractions, through physical and mental setbacks, sacrificing the comfort of “normalcy” for over a decade, Bender remains committed to a dream that suddenly isn’t so far-off. And while competing at a professional level is surely still magical, it’s a wizardry of perspiration and mental toughness that only true dedication can conjure.
Since her collegiate career at the University of Vermont and in the seven years of professional competition following it, Bender has racked up numerous medals and awards. She’s been National Sprint Champion and SuperTour Sprint Leader four times each, podiumed at the USA Nationals Sprint and Distance Combined nine times, started in 15 world cup races, and generally compiled an impressive resume too extensive to complete here. And yet, in learning about her story, none of those things are what struck me most about her. It was hearing about the lifestyle, the sacrifices, the heartache, and her positive, devoted attitude through it all that inspired me to dig deeper into Jennie’s life and her passion for Nordic skiing, a sport which is often overlooked amid Bozeman’s myriad outdoor opportunities.
In the summer of 2012, while Bender was training with a professional team in Minnesota, she contracted both Mononucleosis and Lyme disease simultaneously. A year later, she suffered a herniated disk in her lower spine, and the combined convergence of challenges caused her to question her path. In Bender’s words, “One of the worst feelings is letting yourself down. Many things seemingly out of my control shifted my athletic progression, and during the recovery time, I often felt my world was at rock bottom...I went from the fittest I had ever been, to having to quit training cold turkey for a couple months. I was depressed and gained twenty pounds through what I realized later was therapy baking. In my reality, it was horrible.”
For any human, let alone a professional athlete, this combination of circumstances is a major setback and a potential career-ender.
For Jennie Bender, however, it was an opportunity. Taking the signal that it was time for a change of scenery, Bender moved to Bozeman in 2013 “to join BSF (Bridger Ski Foundation), and take my time to race and heal in the mountains.” It would be nice if that was the whole story; healing, a comeback, and the Olympics. But it isn’t. After a disappointing season in 2015, Bender suffered burnout, a condition only those who have experienced can truly understand. At potentially the lowest point of her career, she had to face the difficult reality that her life as a professional skier, an identity that had come to define her, may be over.
“I mentally checked out when I didn’t have the post Olympic comeback year I was hoping for. I went through the stages of grief for my athletic career…”
When Bender hit mental burnout and “stopped being a skier” midseason, she faced not just the dissolution of a 14-year athletic career, but also the dissolution of who she believed herself to be. She wasn’t losing skiing, she was losing herself.
“It can be hard for an athlete to change into their Clark Kent business suit and hang up the spandex for good, and there is not enough talk about how mentally crushing this transition can be. When you take an athlete who has built their life on having found a place, a peer group, a title, a purpose, a foundation of self-efficacy, and flip that on its head, that person needs to recreate themselves in some manner.”
Sometimes this re-creation means turning the other way and plotting an entirely new course in life. In Jennie Bender’s case, it didn’t. Instead of moving on, she recognized that her quest for the Olympics still carried meaning. Facing down her demons, Bender came out of the experience more driven, and has gone on to ski one of her best seasons ever.
“It was a bizarre experience, but I came out of it and realized I wasn’t done yet. I took some time to find my happiness again, and that overall fall and rise has made me stronger.”
That strength seems to be the crux of Bender’s attitude and continued success. Through the intensity of training once or twice a day, six days a week, eleven months of the year, with the intangibles of health and circumstance always threatening to disrupt momentum, strength of mind is a non-negotiable quality. Add to the mix that most of the elite athletes Bender races against started skiing at two or three years old. Bender really didn’t get into Nordic skiing until 13, so she’s always traveled a steep growth curve. Along with the gruelling aspects of the training and the competition itself, there are the added challenges of walking a lonely path filled with detractors and naysayers.
“People have told me to my face that I will not make it, that I should lose weight, that people don’t like me, that I am too old, or too much of a wild card. I was told in college, that in high school, one competitor made her team stick pins in a Jennie Bender voodoo doll for a whole season.”
I asked Bender how she deals with the inevitable target painted on her back, and she responded with an aspect of life that athletes may be less known for.
“When you are being vulnerable by putting yourself and your abilities out there, you need to have a sense of humor, or else the negative feedback will haunt you...Standing out from the crowd is hard to swallow, until you do it long enough that it becomes normal. I don’t mind making fun of myself to make others laugh, and enjoy breaking people out of their shell by being the one who is over the top. It’s 100% true that you race better when happy, and laughter is indeed the best medicine.”
In talking to Jennie through a dismal wifi connection, we basically skipped the things that this article has covered. I was peppering her with questions about challenges and passion, trying to distill the “Olympic equation,” and the thing she wanted to talk about, and kept returning to, was the Bozeman Nordic community.
“Running into other skiers and parents who mention with a smile ‘my daughter has your poster on the wall’ is such an amazing feeling, because it means I am being the role model that I hope to be. When I can, I teach clinics around the US during my travels as well as in Bozeman, but there is never enough time.” Bender said, her voice coming through in sporadic bursts.
I was surprised, considering that in the winter of 2015 she, along with BSF coach Heidi Makoutz, started the Community Nordic Team which offers the wider Bozeman community an opportunity to learn Nordic skiing from world-class athletes like Jennie and other members of BSF. In Bender’s words, “these clinics were meant to help inspire, teach some tricks of the trade, and start sharing the sport from a non-racing perspective.”
It’s clear that while Jennie Bender has devoted much of her life to a discipline that gets less attention than other sports in our mountain-crazy community, she believes that it can be a gateway for people of all ages and abilities to test themselves and grow as athletes and humans. “Cross country skiing can fit into anybody’s workout routine, or leisure adventuring afternoon. Gliding around through the woods, no matter what type of clothes you wear or speed you are going, is one of the most satisfying winter experiences.”
While most of us will be watching the 2018 Winter Olympics from the comfort of our couches, likely with a beer nearby, Jennie Bender may be one of the skiers we see on the screen. Regardless of results, Jennie and all the other athletes will be measured by a tiny sliver of time; a brief flurry of action reflecting decades of devotion. Win or lose, most will be criticized.
But that’s not what matters. Whether it’s courage or community, strength or silliness, Bender’s quest has undeniably shaped the person she is, and Olympics or not, those qualities will continue to inform her life.
“No matter how much progress or success has happened thus far, I want to make 13-year old Jennie proud by being who she thought I could be.”
To learn more about Jennie Bender, visit her website, jenniebender.com and follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JennieBenderSkier/ To learn about the Community Nordic Program, check out the Facebook group “xc skiers of bozeman” as well as www.bridgerskifoundation.com