How College Swimming Changed My Life: Lisa Bender, An Officer of The Law

Photo Courtesy: Lisa Bender

By Connor Bailey, Swimming World College Intern

There was a pool in the backyard of the Bender household. When Lisa Bender was a baby, she would play in the shallow end of that pool with her sisters. And, because Lisa was a bold child, she would try to swim in the deep end at every opportunity. So, for her own safety, when Lisa was two years old her mother took her to swim lessons. When Lisa joined the local summer recreation team it became clear something special was going on. In her first year on the team, Lisa became the first 4-year-old in team history to be invited as a 6 and under to the League Championship.

Eventually Lisa’s swimming would lead her to swim at the Division-I level for the University of California Davis. In time, Lisa would graduate from UC Davis with two degrees: one in psychology with a neuroscience concentration, the other in sociology with a special eye to criminology.

Two years ago she enrolled in the police academy and today she is a sworn law enforcement officer back in the San Francisco Bay Area where she grew up. I was able to sit down with her and discuss the intersection of her two careers—one athletic, one professional.

The Early Years

After a few years the Summer League schedule wasn’t enough. At eight or nine years old Bender tried club swimming. After only a year, Lisa’s mother took her out because, in Lisa’s words, “I was becoming too stressed and competitive.” Looking back she says, “I think it was the right choice.”

She would continue to practice at the club level in the off-season, but only as long as was allowed by the summer league rules. To stay in shape, Bender began to play water polo and became an accomplished polo player independent of her successes as a swimmer. But like an aquatic Halley’s Comet, every summer Lisa would return to her recreational team. To this day she remains dedicated to that team.

“Summer League will always be my home,” she says.

Lisa Bender Young

Photo Courtesy: Lisa Bender

Everything changed for Bender when she turned 12 and her parents divorced. At 13, Bender took her first job—teaching swim lessons—to help support her family. Bender says after the split, “I realized how important swimming was for me.” Now, her training went to “another level.”

When Bender describes this time, she refers to swimming as “my stress release,” and “my security blanket,” and “my sanctuary.” Swimming wasn’t just a sport anymore; it was a way of survival. But swimming was also her way forward, she knew that she needed a scholarship if she could hope to pay for college and she set out to make that happen.

Bender would go on to dominate her summer league and be very successful on her high school team. She would have some limited successes at the sectionals meet—a feat considering the caliber of the California-grown competition.

“I know it sounds silly,” she says. “But I always felt weightless and invincible in the water.” Swimming became Bender’s strength, her pride. “In swimming, it didn’t matter if I didn’t have those shoes or those clothes. Even if they could afford that fast suit, they couldn’t touch me in the water.”

Heading to College

Bender decided on UC Davis because it was the only school that would allow her to swim and play water polo. But, when she arrived, college wasn’t how Bender pictured it.

“In high school, I was always top level, or number one, and I thought college was going to be like that…It was like putting a guppy into the ocean.”

Bender describes that first year as “humbling” and says the difference was all in the training.

“I had been used to relying on talent and moderate training, but when you go to Division I school, everyone is talented and have been training for a while, so I had to work that much harder.”

Bender would become one of the best of the team in her events, she was improving year on year and then, after swim season junior year, she was injured.

“I hurt my back,” she says. Admitting, “I tried to train through the pain.”

Her reward for that effort was two herniated disks that pressed on a nerve in her lower back. To alleviate the pain and pressure doctors gave Bender a lumbar steroid epidural. It rendered her unable to walk for a week, and sidelined her.

Bender says that it was only with the support of the UC Davis athletic trainers along with her coaches and teammates that she was able to get back into training. Bender thanks her swim community for supporting her through her recovery.

“With the help of great athletic trainers and support from my coaches and teammates, I began to get back into my training routine and had my most successful season,” she says. That community remains one of Bender’s fondest memories of college athletics.

“The community was the best part,” she says. “Being with those girls, you’re a family.”

After College

After graduating with her two degrees, Bender would maintain her connection to swimming, but now as a coach instead of an athlete. One of her old coaches had become the head coach at a local college and Bender joined his team as an assistant coach. She also became a head coach on her own at a local high school. Eventually she would join the police academy, and—after one more graduation—she became the law enforcement officer she is today.

Now, on workdays, she pulls a 12-hour shift at the jail—the position given to all recruits—from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. She wakes up around 1 p.m. and always makes sure to hit the gym for a couple hours before work.

“Training and being physically fit, is going to be something I’ll always want to do for myself,” she says. Taking a moment to relate the results of a recent interdepartmental competition, “I participated in the endurance part,” she said, “I was number one among the women, and I beat some of the men too,” adding with more than a hint of glee, “and they’re not very happy about it.”

Lisa Bender With Dog

Photo Courtesy: Lisa Bender

Bender’s years in the pool taught her many skills that she still uses today as an officer of the law. That athlete’s drive for constant improvement has stayed with Bender. Now, her favorite part of her job is how it forces her to improve herself.

“Everyday you learn something new,” Bender says. “There is no such thing as ‘routine’ in law enforcement.”

Bender says the mental fortitude she honed as a swimmer is one of her greatest assets in her job today.

“You can’t be paralyzed,” she says. If she sees something, she has to act. Period. Bender said that only those with “strong mentalities” could thrive in the environment of swimming. “You have two hours each practice to rack your brain with your thoughts as you stare at that black line on the bottom of the pool.”

Yet, the balancing act familiar to any successful student-athlete remains her most important skill. In college it was swimming and academics, now, it’s her job and personal life.

“You have to do both,” she says. “If you don’t handle one thing, both will suffer.”

Bender keeps the two parts of her life separate, not letting her stressful job affect her home life or vice versa, while still making sure to keep everything going. Balance is the key.

Looking back, Lisa Bender says she wishes that she had put less pressure on herself, and that she appreciated the little victories of swimming more, but she says she would never take it back.

When asked if she thought it was all worth it, Bender is unequivocal.

“Yes. A thousand times, yes…I would not change what swimming was for me. Ever.” Bender credits her dedication to swimming for allowing her to be where she is now and thanks how it has influenced her. “It was a parent,” she says. “It’s created this confident, strong, and really determined person.”

Her passion for the sport remains, even if its focus has changed. Instead of improving her own skills, her attention now bends toward helping others. Bender doesn’t have a great deal of free time nowadays, but she still manages to teach swim lessons and volunteer as an assistant coach with that original summer league team.

“There’s nothing better than teaching. Having a kid understand something they couldn’t do before you. That outweighs any gold medal I’ve gotten, any record I’ve broken, any amount of first places I’ve gotten, the greatest feeling is being able give back what swimming has given to me.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Bill Kriskovich


    very well done! Lisa, nice to hear how you about your accomplishments.

    Bill K.