On the last day of the season in April, national champion Jennie Bender finished dead last in a race. Out of the 33 women who contested the 30 k classic at U.S. Distance Nationals, Bender crossed the finished line over nine minutes behind the second-to-last athlete and a full 30 minutes behind the race-winner.
“I never want to see myself last ever again,” Bender said in a recent phone interview. “That was horrible and embarrassing. The good thing is, now I know I can…do better and I know I have things I haven’t tapped into yet.”
For Bender, 25, finishing last in California taught her once more how to swallow her pride in a season filled with both trying and triumphant moments. She won her first national championship, the classic sprint, and dropped out of her first race in the span of the same week in Soldier Hollow, Utah. The summer before, she missed months of training while she fought off lyme disease and mono at the same time. At Canadian Nationals in the spring she got strep throat and entered SuperTour Finals on fumes.
Despite the setbacks, the win at nationals taught Bender never to count herself out. That lesson is coming in handy now that she’s facing another physical hurdle: a herniated disk in her back. She thinks the misalignment may be the result her fall in the finish lanes at U.S. Nationals in 2012 and two years of subsequent overcompensation. After making several trips to the doctor, Bender decided not treat the injury with surgery and will instead bring herself back to fitness with physical therapy.
“Obviously it’s disappointing and I’d rather not have this, but it could be a lot worse, I guess,” Bender said. “I’m just going to have to deal with it.”
She can’t run or rollerski at the moment, so Bender is doing the majority of her endurance training on an elliptical, in the pool and with nordic walking. She doesn’t know exactly when she can return to rollerskis, but is confident the problem can be fixed in time to be ready to race in November as long as she’s careful with her physical activity throughout the summer.
The uncertainty comes at a time of transition for Bender. At this moment, she is driving from her home of the past three years with Central Cross Country (CXC) in Minneapolis, Minn., to Bozeman, Mont., to begin skiing for Dragan Danevski’s program at the Bridger Ski Foundation (BSF).
Bender, a Vermont native and University of Vermont graduate, says her decision to leave the Midwest was motivated in part by her unpredictable season and a need for something new.
“I’ve thought a lot this summer about where I want to be and why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I realized that the fire is burning very strongly still,” she said. “I still don’t feel like I’ve reached my potential, which bothers me. It all comes down to personal drive, which is what kept me going this year. Everyone is like, ‘I don’t know how you did what you did this winter,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t really know, either.’”
At BSF, Bender hopes to reenergize her training.
“I’m excited, because I think…the Bridger Ski Foundation seems to be a very big organization with lots of supporters and it’s a big, enthusiastic ski community with one club,” Bender said. “I’ve only heard good things about the program and about Dragan.”
In addition to Bender, BSF is growing by two other women this season. University of New Hampshire graduate and NCAA All-American Anya Caldwell Bean is headed for Bozeman soon and MSU’s Cambria McDermott will ski in the BSF suit while she red-shirts a year from the NCAA.
“Dragan Danevski is very happy with the acquisitions, and combined with a great group of Post Graduate skiers, is excited about the future of BSF skiing at the top level,” said BSF assistant coach Tim Baucom.
With three elite women on its roster, BSF carries a bigger women’s squad into next season than it’s ever seen.
“It’s bigger than we have had in the past, and the first time that we feel we have several women who will be competitive nationally and internationally,” Baucom said. “Besides Kristina Trygstad-Saari, we have not had many senior women who have been competitive.”
On the men’s side, Torin Koos will again be on the BSF squad and is joined by NCAA All-American Tyler Reinking from MSU. Leif Zimmermann, four-time national champion and 2006 U.S. Olympic team member, is retiring from competition after 15 years of racing.
For Bender, the move to BSF gives her more group training opportunities, as her workout partners in Minneapolis last year often included masters and juniors.
“I’ve been training a lot on my own in Minneapolis and I think I’ll be around more girls my age who will be eager to go out and rollerski,” Bender said.
“It’s important to be around, in general, a really active environment and that’s what Bozeman is. It’s very outdoorsy, very active, people are always doing something even if it’s not nordic skiing. As long as there’s people willing to go outside and do something active, that’s very motivating for me to go do the same.”
Bender’s back injury will limit her training options as she settles into her new life in Bozeman. Injured is not the ideal way she would like to be joining a new team, but she is enthusiastic about the change of scene.
“It’s hard to leave the midwestern ski community and the friends I’ve made there the last three years, for sure,” she said. “Developing a healthy environment is all part of life; all part of being a successful athlete is surrounding yourself with positivity. But this is a change I think will be good and I’m excited for some mountains.”
Bender’s goals, she added, are the same as they ever were.
“The moral of the story is, you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “Obviously my hopes are still high; I [am] out to make the next Olympics… [I’m] strongest in classic sprinting and the [U.S. Ski Team] is already heavy on sprinters, but because women’s sprinting is a big focus this year I think I could contribute to an already stellar lineup.”
And after a rollercoaster season, Bender thinks her inconsistency in the past might work to her advantage in the future.
“It’s a new year; you never know what I’m going to do,” she laughed.