Hope Bender didn’t play with same toys as the typical little girl.
She raced her first motorcycle at age 5. She was show-jumping horses by the time she was 9.
“I got launched off a couple of horses and flipped a motorcycle once or twice, but nothing too bad,” she said with a shrug, “I pretty much escaped unscathed.”
Bender considers her latest challenge, however, to be much more personal: the heptathlon at this week’s NCAA Outdoor Championships in Austin, Tex.
“This is the first sport where I’ve had to run on my own legs,” the UCSB senior said through her broad, signature smile.
Bender, who will also compete on Thursday in the NCAA women’s long jump, will begin her heptathlon quest on Friday. She is ranked third in the event, having scored a career-best 5,940 points on April 1 at the Bryan Clay Invitational in Azusa.
Texas’ Ashtin Zamzow (6,148) is the hometown favorite while Michelle Athlerley of Miami, Fla. is ranked second (5,966).
UCSB also qualified Tyler Nelson in the decathlon, which begins today.
Bender placed sixth earlier this year at the NCAA Indoors, good enough for All-America honors, but she’s aiming higher this week.
“I think I’ve put myself in a really good spot,” she said. “My coaches have done an incredible job of getting me ready for the big stage, so I’m looking forward to it.”
The daughter of Steve and Lynn Bender was never one to shrink from competition.
“The level of aggression and fearlessness that you have to take onto the motorcycle, and onto the horses, I think has carried over to here,” she said. “It’s made me really willing to attack any situation.
“I don’t see myself as someone who backs down from anything, ever. I think I learned a lot of that in those two sports.”
Bender was a record setter at Newport Harbor High School, running a 42.18 in the 300-meter hurdles at the 2015 CIF State Championships. She didn’t attempt her first heptathlon, however, until after high school.
“I tried one a couple of weeks after graduation just to see if I could be any good at it,” Bender said. “I hadn’t done too much training, though, so I think I scored maybe 4,100 points.”
But if UCSB was good enough to develop 2016 Olympian Barbara Nwaba, she figured, it was good enough to convert her into an elite heptathlete.
“The multi-event program was what absolutely drew me here,” Bender said.
Her path as a Gaucho, however, proved as bumpy as the Pauley Track that remained unusable until last year’s multi-million-dollar renovation. As a sophomore in 2017, she failed to make the first height in the high jump at Big West Conference heptathlon championships and finished 14th with just 4,312 points.
Bender considered it to be just another flip off the motorcycle, resisting a coach’s suggestion that she quit the heptathlon to concentrate on the hurdle events.
“I just talked that off and went into each and every meet after that with confidence, knowing that I was going to do what I was capable of,” she said.
Just a year later, Bender won the 2018 Big West heptathlon title with a score of 5,653. She repeated as champion a few weeks ago at UCSB’s own Pauley Track with 5,814 points.
“It’s obvious that she does not doubt her ability to get the job done during big moments,” UCSB coach Gray Horn said. “Austin, Texas is going to be one for the books.”
Bender made meteoric improvements in her two weakest heptathlon events, placing second in the high jump and third in the javelin at the Big West Multis.
Her biggest leap of improvement, however, has come in the long jump. She went from 18 feet, 113/4 inches as a junior to 20-73/4 when she won the Big West championship on May 10.
Two weeks later, she jumped 20-11/2 at the NCAA West Regionals, qualifying sixth for Thursday’s NCAA Outdoors.
“The long jump will serve as a really high-energy pre-meet,” Bender said. “I mean, we wouldn’t have even competed in it at regionals had it not been scheduled the day before (the heptathlon).”
Her eventual goal is to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the heptathlon. She’s already broken Nwaba’s Big West meet record by 105 points with her 5,814 total.
“Barbara has been an inspiration and a bit of a mentor to me over the years,” she said. “I’ve spoken to her a few times over the season and she’s as incredible a person as she is an athlete.
“Just to have that to look up to and inspire to – and, hopefully, take a few records from – has really influenced my time here.”
Bender said Nwaba will occasionally check her scores “to see about her school record.”
“But she’s always been just so encouraging and so kind to me,” she added. “She always has good words.”
Bender’s coaches advised her against an attempt to break Nwaba’s school record when she lined up for the 800 meters – the final at the Big West Multis. She still had two hurdle races and the long jump looming the next week.
“I was pretty far ahead and we wanted to save my legs as much as we could,” she said. “We kind of made a choice to take it a little bit easy.”
She knew, after all, that the wildest rides are yet to come.