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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

‘A gamble that paid off’: Three Dartmouth rowers secure spots in the Olympics

Billy Bender ’24, Oliver Bub ’20 and Molly Reckford ’15 will compete in Paris this summer.

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On April 7, Billy Bender ’24 and Oliver Bub ’20 won the men’s pair at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic team trials in Sarasota, Fla. The duo will represent the United States in the men’s pair at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Molly Reckford ’15 also qualified for the Olympics in the lightweight women’s double sculls race. The 2024 Olympics will be Reckford’s second Olympic appearance in lightweight women’s double sculls. She finished fifth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with partner Michelle Sechser, who will again join Reckford in Paris.

Bender said he is excited to compete with a Dartmouth alumnus. The two Big Green athletes met last winter at the California Rowing Club, where they discovered their chemistry as a rowing pair. Bender said Bub helped him “get [his] foot in the door” of the rowing world.

“It’s cool to go to the Olympics with somebody you like and respect … who’s also a Dartmouth guy,” Bender said. “Even though we never overlapped at Dartmouth, we know all the same people, and we’ve had a lot of the same experiences.”

Bender said he arrived at Dartmouth as an “academic recruit” with limited prior exposure to serious rowing. He said he wanted to row and “just kept showing up to [the coach’s] office asking for a spot [on the team].” Eventually, Bender said, Dartmouth men’s heavyweight rowing head coach Wyatt Allen “took a chance” on him because he grew up in Hanover and had good grades. Allen requested that Bender take a gap year to row at the Thames Club in the United Kingdom. 

“Wyatt Allen definitely took a shot with recruiting me because I was the worst guy out of 12 who was recruited,” Bender said. “By my freshman year, I was in the 1V boat, and that’s when the team won second at the IRA National Championship.”

Last summer, Bender placed fifth at the World Championships with Evan Olson. After his success at Worlds, Bender said he realized the Olympics was a “possibility” — leading him to take this past winter and spring term off to train for the trials and now the Olympics with Bub.

“Because we race at Dartmouth in the fall and spring, I took winter off to row at one of the biggest rowing clubs in the country, the California Rowing Club,” Bender said. “Bub had been training there for a while, and we hopped in the pair together, and it went well.”

Bub said he was part of Allen’s first recruiting class at Dartmouth and contributed to the coach’s “rebuilding project” to “change the culture” of the program.

Teammate Jacob Hudgins ’23 said Bender faced several hurdles before qualifying for the Olympics, commending him for his perseverance.

“After getting cut from selection camp for the eight boat for the American team, he went on to place fifth at worlds, which was the best a U.S. rower has done for a long time,” Hudgins said. “It definitely wasn’t a given that he was going to make [the Olympics], but everyone … believed in him, and he believed in himself too.”

In order to prepare for the Olympic trials, Bub and Bender started training full-time in January.

“I started training at an altitude camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado for a month, and we’ve been in Sarasota training since then,” Bender said.

After four months of intense training, it was race day at the Olympic qualifying regatta in Switzerland. Bub said he and Bender knew it would be a relatively slow race that day because of strong winds. By the end of the first 1,000 meters, the pair was in fourth. Hudgins, who watched the race, said it was “nerve-wracking … as a spectator.”

“But I don’t think Billy gets nervous in that way,” Hudgins added. “I think if he knows that he can do it, he’s not nervous.”

The pair gained momentum after the 1K mark. A burst of strong strokes got the boat “open on the other crews, and we were kind of just in survive and advance mode,” Bub explained. 

“We knew what was at stake," he said. “We were hyper-focused on making sure we didn’t make any mistakes in that last 500 [meters].”

To prepare for Paris, the pair will return to the California Rowing Club for a month, then travel to Switzerland for race experience at the World Cup. They will then prepare for six more weeks in Hanover and Princeton, N.J., Bender said. Their final leg of training will take place in Italy with Team USA rowing. Bender added that the pair had no training schedule “set in stone” because they didn’t want to “jinx” trials.

Bender added that he took a risk when deciding to take the 2024 winter and spring terms off, leading him to graduate a year late in order to compete at the Olympic trials.

“I’m a [member of the Class of 2024], so I should be graduating this spring,” he said. “By deciding to take the winter and the spring of this year off when I didn’t really know how the race was going to go — and because my seat at the Olympics was not guaranteed — it was a gamble. But it was a gamble that paid off.”

Hudgins added that he felt a gap on the Dartmouth team without Bender.

“Billy’s a great leader on the team, and it [was] definitely tough to not have him this year,” Hudgins said. “Obviously, he took a year off for good reason. It’s tough because he does provide a lot of support culturally, [and] he’s also a really good rower. The team loves Billy, and he brings good energy.”

Men’s heavyweight coxswain Sammy Houdaigui ’25 said he is inspired by Bender’s belief in himself, adding that Bender has “carved out every opportunity that he gets.”

That’s the one lesson I’ve learned at Dartmouth: you always back Billy Bender,” Houdaigui said. “He never had anything given to him throughout his whole rowing career …Even just getting to the Olympics, he really had to forge his own path. The great thing about Billy is that he sort of bets on himself as well, so it’s easy to back a guy that’s got that faith in himself.”

Houdaigui added that one would never know that Bender is one of the best rowers in the country.

“He’s just incredibly humble and cares about the work and the team,” Houdaigui said. “Those are his two main priorities.”

Although they only met last winter, Bub said he and Bender feel like a “natural pairing.”

“On the water, there is just something about the way we row [that] matches up,” Bub said. “Off the water, it’s easy too, and I think that’s important.” 

Houdaigui said that the Dartmouth rowing community watched the trial together and plans to tune into the Olympics this summer.

“The awesome thing about the program is you’ve got everyone watching it across the entire squad, across all the boats,” Houdaigui said. “You’ve got freshmen who have spent very little time with Bender going nuts watching him. You’ve got guys who graduated three years ago going crazy in old group chats about it.”

According to Dartmouth Sports, Cooper Tuckerman ’23 will row in an Olympic qualification regatta May 19-21 in Lucerne, Switzerland to secure his spot. Houdagui said Dartmouth’s recent success highlights the College’s prowess in the American rowing scene.

“It’s just a testament to the fact that if you’re an American, Dartmouth is the place to be,” Houdagui said. “We’re the only really American majority program in collegiate rowing.”