“Meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within.” -Martin Seligman
The Affect Ambassador is an athlete who is doing just that- dedicating themselves to serving something bigger while developing their best self within. Brandon Bender is a perfect example of this.
We had the privilege of meeting Brandon Bender three years ago when he joined the Live Grit First Timers’ program to embark on his first triathlon journey. However, his inspiring story started long before his first triathlon and has continued far beyond the finish line of the Chicago Triathlon. Let us introduce you to Brandon Bender, in his words:
In my early years, I was a very intelligent and active kid. I loved playing all sports and did well in school. But as I got older, I had noticeable difficulty fitting in socially and making friends and began to struggle academically. Just as things started to improve, I suddenly moved with my family to a new town and state at eleven years old. For any pre-teen, this would be a difficult transition under even the best of circumstances. I, however, did not have the best circumstances as my then-undiagnosed challenges with Asperger Syndrome were exposed in the worst way possible. My weird behavior alienated my new classmates and I was picked on and bullied mercilessly by those who wanted no part of it. I self-destructed to unprecedented levels as I got into mounds of trouble at school and was nearly expelled. I made countless exhausting attempts to form friendships but I was unsuccessful in doing so, and as a result, I fell in with the wrong crowd. Once a good student in elementary school, my grades plummeted and I was nearly held back in sixth grade. Feeling hopeless, I became severely depressed to the point where I nearly took my own life at just twelve years old. Talk about heartbreaking. I visited countless doctors during this time, and nobody could come up with a definitive answer for what my problem was... until I was in 8th grade. Once my doctor confirmed that I had Asperger's, my parents, teachers and I all had a better idea of how to cope with my condition.
While I continued to perform not-so-terrifically in the classroom, by the time I reached high school I had finally formed a great group of friends who became my brothers, and they supported me every step of the way. In fact, it was because of their love and caring that I was able to launch the successful campaign of "Bender For Prom King '09!" my senior year of high school! For a teenager who didn't possess the best social skills, how awesome is that? I overcame the odds in middle school to become Prom King my senior year of high school. And then I successfully navigated my way through college at Indiana University, a Big Ten institution, where I graduated in four years as part of the national honor society without any special accommodations.
As I began working after college, I started picking up the Chicago Athlete Magazine and I was inspired to read people’s stories. I had always been an avid athlete, but I had never done any endurance races before. I never ran track or cross country growing up, nor had I ever completed an official 5K. But in reading about other people who had completed these races, I thought there was no reason that I couldn’t. Was it intimidating? Sure, but why not me?
I saw listings for smaller local races and bigger and longer ones like the classic Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon and the prestigious Bank of America Chicago Marathon. But to me, the most intriguing race of all was the Transamerica Chicago Triathlon. Running is one thing, but to add swimming AND biking to it? That would scare the average person away. Not me. If anything, I thought this unique challenge would separate me from the other athletes who were “better” than me growing up.
In January of 2016, I lost my grandmother who was very near and dear to me. As I had already been wanting to give something new a “tri”, I saw that the 2016 Chicago Triathlon was set for August 28, which would’ve been my grandma’s birthday. It was a sign, I thought. I knew in my heart I needed to do it, but I had to overcome the initial fear and intimidation resulting from my commitment.
As I bravely took a deep breath and clicked “Submit Payment” as I completed the registration for my first triathlon, I took a moment to comprehend what I had just done. I thought to myself, “Someone who had never swam competitively as a kid, did not own a bike, and had never even completed an official 5K, how could you do this?!”
Luckily for me, I found Live Grit, and they had the perfect First Timers’ training program. They were a community of athletes of all experience levels and different backgrounds who had already been through the exact same thing I was going through. I would learn a lot from them as I trained throughout the summer.
Finally, on race day, I was ready. Six months of endless training and preparation had all come down to one day. With my Live Grit crew, I had nothing to be nervous about. We had discussed and practiced every single element of a triathlon, from the equipment to the race course. All I needed to do was just do it! And what a race it was--my first outdoor triathlon and I finished in the top third of all Sprint finishers! As a lifelong Cubs fan, I even brought my “W” flag which I would fly after I crossed the finish line. And of course, I also brought along the frame of my favorite picture with my grandma. One of my coaches took a picture of me holding up the frame along with my brand new race medal. And that’s when it dawned on me: I had successfully completed my first triathlon, and I did on my grandma’s first birthday after she died. It was nothing short of amazing. What a way to celebrate her life!
In 2017, I decided to use my story to inspire people, especially those who are affected by autism, by completing the Chicago Triathlon (Olympic Distance) while raising money for Autism Speaks. People had doubted me my whole life. Growing up through middle school and high school, I was never good enough to make the school team, at least not in the eyes of the coaches. But, I always knew I had persistence. I never lacked determination to keep working hard to follow my dreams. And, I want to inspire others to do the same.
Brandon successfully completed the triathlon and he continues to inspire so many people. He has dedicated his life to achieving his goals so that he can inspire others to achieve theirs with his story of passion, perseverance and grit. Brandon recently began working as a remote freelance utility with the Big Ten Network for football and basketball games with Northwestern University. He hopes that this will lead to more gigs and eventually his dream job of working with a national network. He hopes to travel across the country and the world to different sporting events so he can share his story and inspire others to follow their dreams and never let anyone tell them they are impossible.
We will continue to share and be inspired by Brandon’s story over the next year.