Olympian sees golden future for rugby
Garrett Bender, 25, starred in football at Washburn High School but also led its rugby team to a state championship. He went to St. Cloud State on a football scholarship but soon opted to pursue rugby instead, and he earned a spot on Team USA's rugby squad that participated in the Summer Olympics in Rio last year. He came to Rochester on Sunday to work with the two-time defending state champion Rochester Brotherhood rugby team, coached by James Driessen, and he took a few minutes to talk to the PB before hitting the field.
What was the highlight of your Olympic experience?
BENDER:I grew up watching the Olympics, so being a part of the opening ceremonies was surreal. Marching in it was one of those "Wow!" moments. It's a three-hour process, but finally you come out of the tunnel into a stadium packed with people who are there just to watch you walk in, and there's all these lights and people screaming. For us, it was like, "We did it. We're actually here."
What made you decide to abandon football for rugby in college?
BENDER:I fell in love with rugby real hard the last couple years of high school. My senior year, we won state, and I was state MVP. I went up to St. Cloud State to play football, but I had rugby on my mind the whole time. I carried a rugby ball to practice every day. My heart just wasn't in football, and I didn't feel right with the coaches investing in me, giving me a scholarship. So I decided to take a step back and pursue my rugby career.
How did you end up on the Olympic team?
BENDER:I played with the Yougbloodz, a 7s team based in Minneapolis, and we had some success and went to nationals, where I got scouted by Al Caravelli, who coached Team USA. He asked me to come to a camp, and I performed well enough to make the team.
How did things go in Rio?
BENDER:It was crazy to see the support we got. People I didn't even know were following us just because they'd gone to school with me, and after the games, everyone was talking about rugby being the most exciting sport in the Olympics. But the competition itself was a pretty bittersweet experience, as we ended up taking ninth out of 12 teams. We had a few unlucky bounces in a few games, but that's how the 7s game goes. We won our last two games, but earlier we lost to Argentina on the final play, and we gave Fiji their best match of the whole tournament — and that's the team that won the gold medal.
Did you meet any celebrities in Rio?
BENDER: We got to watch the men's basketball team practice, because they used the same facility we did. After they were done practicing, we got to go out on the court and shake hands with them. Carmello Anthony asked us to sign a rugby ball for him, so I was like 'Heck yeah!' I'm running around to all of the guys, getting them to sign, and I had my head down when Kevin Durant came up to me. He reached out to sign the ball, and I halfway handed it to him, then I was like 'No!' and I pulled it away. I tried to explain that we were signing the ball for Carmello, but I couldn't get the words out, and he looked at me totally stone-faced, then walked away. He looked pretty mad. I went over later and explained, and he was super cool about it. I think he'll remember that a lot more than just signing another autograph!
Do you hope to make Team USA for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo?
BENDER :That's my goal. I have a four-year plan all written out, and it ends with winning a gold medal in Tokyo.
Being an Olympian doesn't exactly pay well. What do you do aside from playing rugby?
BENDER:I trim trees, do some random jobs to make a little money, but coaching is where I'm putting my heart. I coach my old high school team, and I've put together some youth camps. I'll also be going up to Washburn High School to coach the football team in rugby-style tackling techniques to limit concussions. I'm trying to start a business where I'll teach coaches these tackling techniques. Parents don't want kids to play football anymore because of the concussions, but if kids learn the proper way to tackle, it saves a lot of heads.
What will it take for rugby to become a state-sanctioned high school sport in Minnesota?
BENDER:Rugby needs to be understood and advocated for by coaches in other sports. My whole career, I tried to get my buddies to come out for rugby, but there were always these coaches who were saying, "No, we don't want you to get injured. We want you to run track." So now they tell me that I'm the best linebacker who ever played at Washburn, and I'm like "Yes, and what was I doing in the offseason? I was playing rugby!" It works on fitness, speed, tackling, running the ball — it's an extra season to do all of these things.
So you think rugby has an unfair reputation?
BENDER:There's this huge stigma in the United States that rugby is just football without pads. That's not true at all. Rugby is safer because we don't have pads. Rugby is a contact sport, but football is a collision sport. Football is a car crash on every play. You're running as fast as you can, hitting people as hard as you can, because you're wearing all that protection so you don't worry about your body. With rugby, you can't do that, especially leading with your head, because you'll knock yourself out.
What's the future of rugby in Minnesota and the nation?
BENDER:Youth programs are the key. We have to start them young, because we're competing against countries where kids start playing rugby when they are 4 or 5 years old. In America, the average player who takes up rugby starts in college, because it's the first chance they have to play. It's going to be 10, 15 years down the road, but hopefully by then we'll be in a good place. We have the athletes to win, but it's just going to take time. I'm dedicating my career to that effort, to build the sport up, because it's a great game. There's a position on the rugby field for every body type and every athletic ability.