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Written By: Mark Janzen
If you follow @rugbybender on Instagram, you already know that Garrett Bender’s hand walking days have returned. Followers can celebrate. The future will be entertaining.
A post in mid-December from the rugby-playing Olympian, who last represented USA Rugby in the 2016 Summer Olympics, showed off his burgeoning efforts while in Minnehaha Falls. A month earlier, another post saw him hand walking the Stone Arch Bridge in his hometown of Minneapolis.
In a way, he’s back. In another way, he’s not quite.
“I’m still in the ‘walking around trying not to eat sh*t phase,’” he says with a laugh.
The December walkabout somewhat emphasized his point.
Yet, the hulking rugby star, who stands 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, is keen to re-establish his off-field craft after a wrist injury sustained in the season leading up to the Olympics had kept him off his hands until recently.
“It’s been my thing for a long time, and I’m just getting back to it,” Bender says. “I don’t know why I like it but it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing since high school. I want to get to a point where I can just go straight up and not look like I’m balancing at all.”
We’ll call that his side project in an upcoming year which will see Bender make a much more consequential return. For the first time in nearly a year and a half, Bender will step back into the rugby-play foray. And if his hand walking ambitions are any sign of his drive to succeed, the rugby world is about to reconnect with a good friend who is about to get better.
As of this article’s publishing, it has been 519 days since Bender, 26, last played a meaningful rugby game. When he suits up for the Seattle Seawolves in the franchise’s first-ever contest on April 22 as part of the opening weekend of the fledgling Major League Rugby, it’ll have been 620 days since Bender and his American teammates beat Spain 24-12 in the ninth-place match in Rio de Janeiro.
Since then, Bender has been on his own adventure, stepping away from the USA’s sevens program, finding his way as a coach, refreshing his mind and body, while searching to rediscover his love and passion for the game.
Becoming an Olympian was, not surprisingly, a dream come true.
Bender had a token soirée with football – the combination of his size alone earned him a spot on the gridiron with St. Cloud State University coming out of high school in 2010 – but after a year at the college level and with the debut of rugby sevens at the Olympics on the horizon, he returned to rugby. He made his international debut with the United States national team in 2012.
At that point, rugby was his sole focus, with the Olympics providing the ultimate carrot. At the same time, the road to making the Olympic roster was, as one would expect, the ultimate grind.
The ninth place finish was a disappointment, but it wasn’t the reason he took a break.
“It was a heavy build-up to the Olympics,” Bender recalls. “It was so physically and mentally taxing. I was already leaning toward taking a break and after it was over, I decided to take a step away and let my body heal.”
Turning down what would have been a diminished sevens contract for the following year, Bender returned to Minneapolis and sought employment. While he was a regular starter in a sport that earned a distinct spotlight in Rio, his coming home garnered little fanfare.
“It is a huge honour to be part of the Olympics and I’m super grateful for the opportunity,” he says. “But it wasn’t like when I came back, people treated me any differently. I did this thing with rugby and I accomplished something I wanted to accomplish, but that was sort of it.”
One of the best sevens players in the country – alongside fellow forward Danny Barrett, the duo has, for good reason, been referred to as the Bash Brothers – returned to Minnesota, where he was once a state champion in rugby with Washburn High School.
Upon his return, he soon found himself working at Chipotle for a time. After that, he worked with a few tree-trimming places while also dabbling in some “handyman sort of stuff.” There was little fanfare and that was okay with Bender.
With his Olympic pedigree, he was asked to help coach a variety of different teams, including, amongst others, assisting with the US Air Force 7s men’s and women’s teams and the Minneapolis Rugby 7s program. “People asking me to help with coaching – that was cool,” Bender says.
However, Bender purposely kept his rugby-playing boots on the shelf.
“It’s been very refreshing,” he says. “My body feels better than it has in years. But, it was still a big challenge. I was taking a step away from the one thing that I’m naturally really good at. There were some tough times and I struggled a bit trying to fight through my urge to come back too soon. But now, I’m really excited to get back to what I know how to do.”
With the Seawolves, he’s set to pen an entirely differently rugby-playing chapter, as he returns to the fifteens fold in a full-time capacity for the first time since his university days.
“I wanted to rediscover that pure, true love for rugby again,” he says. “I got hooked up with this Seattle team and I feel like it’s a great opportunity for me to find that joy and love for the game and be in a different environment and try something new.”
On Jan. 2, 2018, he said goodbye to Minneapolis. Posting a selfie on Instagram from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Bender wore a nervous smile. It was just a few moments before departing for Seattle.
Three days later he was telling an inquisitive mind about his first few days.
“It just feels right, here,” he says. “I’m getting really good vibes from the city.”
Two days after that, he posted a picture of his first cup of coffee in Seattle. Of course he did. It would seem, in this moment, this is exactly the place to be for Bender.
“I’m just really anxious to get started,” says Bender, who will likely slot in with Seattle as a flanker. “All the coaches really seem like genuine dudes, and I’ve played with a good handful of my teammates back in the sevens program.
“(Unlike sevens), I’m also looking forward to some guys running straight at me and being able to run straight myself.”
For Seattle fans, who got their first glimpse of Bender in a Seawolves uniform when he was part of a recent MLR promotional shoot, the idea of the sevens star helping to lead their club should have them giddy to get out to Starfire Stadium. With the Seawolves coaching staff, led by head coach Tony Healy, intent on playing a wide-open style, Bender is a perfect fit.
“He’s powerful and he’s fast,” says Healy, whose team opens camp Jan. 22. “He’s voracious from a work ethic perspective. He’s a great ball-runner and a devastating tackler. He doesn’t seem to want to stop. That’s exactly what we want. We need guys who can run and pass and offload and tackle till the cows come home and that’s what he’ll bring.”
It's that drive and inner-fire that somehow knew tree-trimming for a time was the best thing for his rugby career. And it’s that work ethic that understands his chance with the Seawolves might be exactly where he needs to be to get to where he eventually wants to go.
In an interview last April, he said that he had a four-year plan that ends with him helping the USA win a gold medal in the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. Indeed, he still espouses that goal.
“Being in the Olympics is awesome, but when you work so hard, you want to come away with something more than just being able to say you were there,” he says. “So there’s a big motivation to get a medal. I’d like to give it another shot and if I’m lucky enough to make the team again, I’d do some things differently and prepare a little better, and attack it properly.”
Always eager to improve, that talk is Bender in brief.
Now that he’s back, Seattle fans can look forward to a whole lot of thrills at Starfire Stadium, and maybe, just maybe, a little hand walking past a few flying fish in the heart of Pike Place Market.