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Olympic athlete has New London roots

Bender plays with U.S. rugby team

By Scott Bellile

Garrett Bender, left, with his grandfather Bob Marcks and brother Brant Bender in Las Vegas. Garrett travels the world playing rugby. Photo courtesy of Bob Marcks
Garrett Bender, left, with his grandfather Bob Marcks and brother Brant Bender in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Bob Marcks

A U.S. Olympian competing in Rio de Janeiro this past week had family cheering him on in New London.

Garrett Bender, 24, was a starter for the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team. The team went 3-2 and finished ninth over three days of play Aug. 9-11 in Brazil.

Although Garrett was raised in the Minneapolis area, his mother Sue is a New London native and a part of New London High School’s class of 1983. Sue’s father, Bob Marcks, resides at Marian Heights next to St. Joseph Residence. Garrett also has an aunt and uncle in New London, Jodi and Steve Gruentzel.

Marcks said the Marian Heights crowd has been offering him congratulations lately, and a few followed Garrett’s games on TV. Marcks caught four of them on TV and said Garrett played well.

“I am proud. Let’s put it that way,” Marcks said.

Rugby sevens is a seven-player adaption of rugby that’s played in seven-minute halves. It made its Olympic debut this year. The U.S. team fielded 12 athletes and three alternates.

“I still know very little about rugby, but I like watching it because it’s exciting to watch, especially when you’ve got somebody playing,” Marcks said.

While Garrett’s father Michael traveled to Rio, Sue watched the five games with family at home in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Sue said she received plenty of messages of support from her New London connections.

Garrett first appeared on TV during the opening ceremony. Sue admitted she was so focused on him that she didn’t hear anything the commentator said.

“I was just distracted by seeing Garrett,” she said. “We all got so excited and then of course had to rewind the TV. We would rewind it and everybody taped it, and I was getting tons of messages from friends and family through Facebook, and it was really cool. It was probably the most thrilling experience I’ve had of my life,” besides when Garrett and his older brother Brant were born.

Garrett began playing rugby at age 15, Sue said. He switched his focus from football to rugby in college at St. Cloud State. He’s now played games throughout the U.S., Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

He got significant playing time at Rio and “poured his heart into it,” Sue said. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound forward mainly handled defensive duties, so he didn’t score points.

Team USA opened Aug. 9 with a 17-14 loss to Argentina. It then shut out Brazil 26-0 that day.

On Aug. 10, it fell 24-19 to eventual world champion Fiji, a team Sue said the U.S. has defeated before in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

Aug. 11 gave the U.S. a pair of victories, a 24-12 win over Brazil and a 24-12 victory over Spain, to secure ninth place.

“After five games, I think he pretty well is going to have to rest his body for a while because they get banged up pretty good,” Marcks said.

“Watching the games was good, heartbreaking at times,” Sue said. “It was really thrilling to see him play, and he had good games.”

Garrett makes his way to New London two or three times a year, and Sue said has a post-Olympics visit planned in the coming months.

Marcks said he’s eager to see Garrett again.

“I want to hear his stories,” Marcks said. “He should have some good ones.”

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