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Track and Field Phenom Hope Bender Hits the Homestretch

Before College, She Was a Motocross Rider and Horse Show Jumper

Hope Bender soars toward a long jump mark of 6.06 meters (19′10¾″) en route to her second consecutive Big West championship in the heptathlon. The UCSB senior’s score of 5,814 points was a new meet record.

Hope Bender is finishing her fabulous college track-and-field career with a flourish that includes a rare home meet on the homestretch.

The Big West Championships are taking place at UCSB’s Pauley Track for the first time since 1983. The multi-event competition was held last weekend, and Gaucho seniors claimed both titles, Bender winning the women’s heptathlon (5,814 points) for the second straight year and Tyler Nelson the decathlon (7,420).

Both athletes will be busy in the individual events this Friday-Saturday (May 10-11). Bender, UCSB’s record holder in the 100-meter hurdles (13.33 seconds) and 400 hurdles (58.02), will compete in those races as well as the long jump, where she has landed the school’s no. 2 mark of 6.18 meters (20′3½″).

Bender learned to move fast and furiously early in her life. She was a motocross rider starting at age 5 and also did horse show jumping. Both sports instilled her with qualities that made her an elite athlete in track and field.

“I had to be fearless in motocross, going full throttle,” she said. “It helped me with my balance, coordination, and body awareness. Riding horses helped my ability to run the hurdles, judging distances and takeoff spots.”

Motorcycles and horses were not on the menu when Bender entered high school at Newport Harbor. Her mother, Lynn, had been a college track athlete. “I said, ‘Track is lame,’” recalled Hope, but she nevertheless gave it a try. 

Not surprisingly, Bender took up some challenging events. “It was a joy to learn the hurdles,” she said. She also found fulfillment in the 400, a lung-heaving sprint. “I fell in love,” she said. “The results are in black and white, and if you dedicate yourself and put in the work, you get results.”

Photo: Paul WellmanHope Bender

Bender’s best results her senior year were in the 300 hurdles. She set an Orange County record and was a state finalist. Former UCSB assistant coach Cody Fleming recruited her with the heptathlon in mind. She began to add the shot put and javelin throw to her set of skills.

“My big goals coming to UCSB were to set a school record in the 100-meter hurdles and qualify for the NCAA in the heptathlon,” Bender said. She achieved both in her junior year and has set these new goals: “To be a first-team All-American and score 6,000 points.”

She scored a personal best of 5,940 points last month at the Bryan Clay Invitational in Azusa. It was very close to the school record of 5,986 that Barbara Nwaba set in 2012. Nwaba, training with the Santa Barbara Track Club, later won the 2015 U.S. championship, scored 6,500 points, and competed in the Rio Olympics.

Bender will take her next shot at the 2019 NCAA Championships June 7-8 in Austin, Texas. Her score is no. 3 on this year’s collegiate list. A top-eight finish will crown her an All-American. She finished 12th last year.

In this weekend’s meet, Bender said she is looking forward to the 400 hurdles. She is the two-time defending Big West champion in the one-lap race over 10 barriers. The final is scheduled at 4:05 p.m. Saturday.

Bender’s boyfriend would be there to cheer her on if he were not doing his own athletic thing about 150 meters from the track. He is Tommy Jew, the senior center fielder on UCSB’s nationally ranked baseball team. The Gauchos are hosting Long Beach State in a three-game Big West series (3pm Fri., 2pm Sat., and 1pm Sun.).

“Tommy and I met in FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] our sophomore year,” Bender said. 

“I didn’t know much about baseball, and he didn’t know track. We’ve exchanged our loves of sports.”

Like her, Jew is multitalented. He is an outstanding fielder who hits with power (he belted his 11th home run last Sunday in a 5-3 victory at Cal State Northridge), and he can run, too. In a 3-2 win over Stephen F. Austin last month, Jew stole home for the winning run.

“He’s pretty quick,” Bender said. “He wouldn’t be bad at the 100.”

But throw in some hurdles, and that’s a task she’s far better equipped to handle.

Photo: Paul WellmanBriana Castro

CIF PLAYOFFS:  Santa Barbara High upset defending champion Corona del Mar in the Division 1 volleyball quarterfinals and was set to host Mira Costa on Wednesday night, the winner advancing to the finals Saturday. In the baseball playoffs, the Dons and Dos Pueblos Chargers went out in the first round.

San Marcos and Dos Pueblos got off to winning starts in the softball playoffs, the Royals blanking Village Christian 2-0 and the Chargers scoring a robust 10-0 win over Santa Paula.

While DP senior Allison Speshyock was tossing a three-hit shutout, junior catcher Briana Castro supplied punch at the plate, slugging a double off the right-field fence and clearing the left-field fence for a two-run homer.

After the game, Castro’s eyes were sparkling above the coat of glitter that she applied to the usual stripes of eye black. “Ever since we started wearing [the glitter], we’ve gone undefeated,” Castro said. The Chargers took an 11-game winning streak into this week.

“I did it for my team,” Castro, a three-year varsity player, said of her offensive output. “I’m happy I performed for them.”

She learned the fundamentals from her father, Hector, and her uncle, Samuel. “They played baseball in Mexico,” she said. “After every game, my father tells me what I do wrong. He talks about my swing. I say, ‘Dad, that’s a baseball swing. It doesn’t work in softball.’ There are a lot of different pitches in softball that are not in baseball. In baseball you pretty much drop your arm to launch it. Here you have to swing level at every ball.” 

Like Speshyock, who is headed to Siena College, Castro said, “My goal is to make it to college.” But maybe not as far away as New York. “I want to stay close to my family,” she said. “I watch a lot of baseball with my uncle. We are Angels fans. My father’s a Dodger fan. A little controversy in the house.”

BLINK AND YOU’LL MISS ’EM:  At midday next Thursday, May 16, 19 teams of professional cyclists will be flying down Highway 154 from San Marcos Pass into Santa Barbara. They will skirt the city along Foothill Road/Highway 192 and head over to Casitas Pass. It is Stage 5 of the 2019 Amgen Tour of California. The 135-mile stage will start in Pismo Beach and finish in Ventura.

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