How Two Rowers With Different Backgrounds Made It Into The Same Boat And Into The Olympics

by Lisa Costantini

(l-r) Oliver Bub and Billy Bender celebrate after winning the men's pair during the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Rowing on Apr. 07, 2024 in Sarasota, Fla. (Photo by row2k)

For rower Oliver Bub, rowing is all he’s ever known.

Growing up in Westport, CT, in a house with two parents who rowed, the Dartmouth alum started the sport in his freshman year of high school. Olympians were frequent guests at his house.

What he learned by watching them is that “they’re human beings, too. They have good days and bad days,” Bub said. “It takes a lot of guts to revolve your life around a six-minute race, and it takes a lot of work — and that’s what I saw.”

For his pairs’ teammate Billy Bender, if he wanted to see an Olympian he had to go to his next-door neighbors in Norwich, VT, and ask to watch them on TV, because his house didn’t have one. The neighbor was Blair Brooks, a former member of Harvard crew and the local high school rowing coach where Bender’s older brother attended and was on the team.

Bender’s first Olympic memory is “going over to [Brooks’] house and watching rowing in the Olympics. I think I watched my first race there.” Sadly, Brooks passed away a couple of years ago, and Bender wishes Brooks could have seen and shared everything he’s since accomplished.

Both Bub and Bender eventually made their way east to New Hampshire where they attended Dartmouth College — one starting in 2020 just as the other was finishing.

But their paths would cross three years later when both Bub and Bender would be teamed up for the first time to race in the Winter Speed Order in Sarasota, FL. There they took third in the pair to earn automatic invitations to the first U.S. Rowing men’s senior selection camp in Princeton, NJ. 

After being cut from selection camp in March, the two decided to join forces for the upcoming 2024 U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Team Trials — Rowing — at the place where they last raced together, Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.

“We raced Winter Speed Order here last year and did really well,” Bub remembered. “And then when we were both cut from the eights. We were like, you’re available, I’m available. Let’s see if we have the same speed we did last year.”

Turns out, they did.

The two crossed the finish line first, nearly three seconds ahead of the second-place boat — securing them a spot on the team headed to the Olympic Games Paris 2024.

(l-r) Oliver Bub and Billy Bender compete in the men's pair during the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Rowing on Apr. 07, 2024 in Sarasota, Fla. (Photo by row2k)

This will be the first Olympics for both senior national team members, who have yet to land on a podium at a senior international event. If they did, it would be the U.S.’s first medal of any color since silver in 2000 — and the last time a men’s pair won gold was in 1956.

“This is kind of what we hoped the race would look like, so it affirms that yeah, we are a good combination,” Bender shared, “but obviously, there’s work to do. We’ve only been together for two weeks.”

Bub’s chalked their chemistry up to having both attended Dartmouth and having the same coaches and approach to the sport.

“We felt it last year and felt like we could replicate it this year,” he said. “I like rowing with him and I hope he likes rowing with me. I think we picked up where we left off.”

Their moms were in attendance at trials and in agreement.

“They’re a great match,” Bub’s mom, Mary Beth said. “They trust each other unbelievably and it’s been really fun to watch them.”

But the journey hasn’t come easy — for any of them.

“If you see our texts, it’s been no sleep, nauseous. Torture,” Mary Beth said about the exchange between the two mothers. Lots of Tums, Bender’s mom Mary added.

Bub’s admitted to experiencing the lowest point in his rowing career when he was cut from the eight boat at selection camp in March. “I let my mind go to Paris and to be honest, I think it bit me in the behind a little bit. You have to focus on what’s in front of you and not what’s four months down the line,” he shared.

Due to all the stress, he said he wasn’t nervous about trials. “I think my body was done producing stress hormones,” Bub laughed. “I was ready to be done with it and just ready to go.”

And now that he’ll be going to Paris, what can he expect?

“I’ve never been so it will be a new place. It’s the Olympics and the dream of every rower who wants to compete at a level beyond college,” he said.

Bender revealed that he’d been to Paris before — four years ago with his family. And while he hadn’t given much thought to what he wanted to do when he went back, he had been thinking about the competition.

“The Brits are really good. The Swiss won last year. There are a lot of really good combinations, but obviously, we think we’re pretty good, too,” he admitted. In Paris, “the focus is going to be on racing, and then once that’s done then I’ll go see the Eiffel Tower again.”