Liberty High senior Faith Bender is back in the throws ring, healthy, and looking for a strong finish to her high school career. (Ryan Blystone photo)
BAKERSFIELD -- It has taken significant time to heal, to feel normal, and to get back out there, but Faith Bender, the state's top female high school discus thrower, is sending strong signals she's ready to pick up where she left off in 2019.
Now a senior at Bakersfield's Liberty High (CS), Bender began her June 2021 meet schedule by winning discus and shot put titles at the Southwest Yosemite League Finals on June 5 at Bakersfield High School.
The Arizona State University-bound athlete recorded a top mark of 45 feet, 3 inches in the shot put, instantly earning the second-best mark in the state this season. She then won the discus with a top throw of 164 feet, 3 inches. Although it was the top mark on that day, it came one week after Bender recorded the state's top effort, 170-4.5, at a Central Coast Micro Meet in Salinas.
And to think, Bender was more likely to take a full second year off from high school competitions. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 high school season for everyone, but then Bender suffered what her father, Liberty assistant coach Paul Bender, described as a hairline fracture in the L-5 vertebrae in her spine.
"It is a bone fracture and it is generally caused by a misbalance and years of rotation with misbalance in the spine," Paul Bender said.
Faith did physical therapy to strengthen everything around the injury, but there was also a disc inflammation issue. A stem cell procedure "really attacked" the affected area, Paul Bender said. "The treatment was incredible. I never expected her to be back this season. Our goal was to get her healthy so when she goes to college she won't be starting it in physical therapy."
Uncertainty if a high school track season would happen in 2021 changed to all systems go, but CIF State officials decided to cancel the state championships for a second straight year. There were three CIF-Central Section Area meets on Wednesday, and the fourth is Friday, June 11 at Liberty High. The CIF-Central Section championship meet is June 19 at Clovis Buchanan High School. Shortly after the CIF State Meet cancellation, an alternative state meet was created for June 25-26 and will be held at Arcadia HS.
Paul Bender was still convinced that Faith should just focus on her health and not compete again in high school meets. But his daughter's quicker-than-expected recovery and her subsequent performances so far have changed his mind.
Faith Bender, who went 168-6 at the 2019 State Meet discus final to place second, and 44-8.25 for fifth in the shot put, is not only back with strong and better marks in 2021 but she's quite capable of finishing her last high school season with a state title and can build onto it at Arizona State.
"I've definitely gained a new perspective," she said. "I'm watching the NCAA (Championships) and seeing the marks are a lot farther than what we're throwing now. It gives you the incentive to want to throw farther and train harder."
Bender has motivation and also has a teammate in fellow senior Bella Rigby who gives Liberty a 1-2 duo in the discus and shot put.
When Bender returned for her first Southwest Yosemite League meet May 21, she promptly was second with a throw of 157-9. Rigby equaled her own PR mark of 163-9 to win. Rigby, a three-sport athlete who picked up the discus and shot put her freshman year and placed ninth in the discus at the 2019 State Meet, has been a solid performer. Rigby's shot put PR is a top 10 mark at 41-9.
"It's very exciting to have a combination that can throw like that," said Liberty throws coach Rod Chronister, of Bender and Rigby, who has signed with Cal Poly SLO. "I've been around good throwers before, but having these two here and at the same time is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me."
Paul Bender, a 1980 state discus champion at Shafter High, and Chronister, have worked with the duo and feel grateful to have one of the most talented high school female discus and shot put tandems since Bakersfield High had Melissa Weis and Dawn Dumble together. Weis was a three-time CIF-State champion in the discus from 1988-90 and won a state title in the shot put in 1989. Dumble won the shot put state title in 1988 and 1990, and was a three-time NCAA shot put champion at UCLA.
But Bender's late-season return and her early top marks put all other discus throwers, including Rigby, on notice. Her decision to throw at the Salinas meet was a good move to see where she stands against another level of competition. Bender competed against mostly club athletes and finished second. Saturday's league title win mark was comfortable enough to outdistance Rigby, who went 150-8.5. The next closest SWYL participant was Ridgeview's Myli Level at 108-5.
Competing in the CIF Area meet in a familiar setting at Liberty should give both Bender and Rigby a certain level of comfort and confidence, but they'll see a wave of competitors seeking the same thing as them -- to throw well enough to advance to the next postseason meet.
Do Bender and Rigby feed off each other's effort? Probably, but Liberty's throw coaches don't see a rivalry there and believe the athletes are simply most focused on themselves.
"I think that even if you have two athletes with the same techniques, you each still have your own way and want to put a different spin to make it your own," said Rigby, who credits playing basketball and volleyball at Liberty for helping her with some of the athletic attributes needed in her field events.
Bender has had other sports experiences, including basketball and swimming, but has been singularly set on the discus and shot put for many years. Despite past success, Bender's return to high-profile high school meets after a serious injury makes her grateful for what's happening now.
"I'm not trying to get too excited because you don't know what can happen," Bender said. "It's been a learning experience, to learn who you are without track. That was probably the biggest mental battle for me. I'm very happy to be back out here."
Seeing it unfold this month will be worth the wait.
Ryan Blystone is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplitCA