Pioneers: Denise Bender, Never Say Quit

Published: February 14, 2021
Written by: Paul Tukey
Denise Bender, the first National Team captain (courtesy of Denise Bender)

INTRODUCING: Denise Bender

COLLEGE: Washington State and the University of Washington

INTRODUCTION TO SOCCER: Growing up with a brother and twin sister on Mercer Island near Seattle, Denise competed in gymnastics and diving, as well as track and basketball, and didn’t start playing soccer until the Mercer Island Jockettes were formed in the early 1970s. Soon afterward, Denise was scouted by Mike Ryan and picked for his nationally recognized club team, FC Lowenbrau, that won three national women’s club championships from 1980-82.

Denise, left, with her twin sister, Laurie, on the Washington state team (©Western Washington University Athletics)

NATIONAL TEAM: After playing at the University of Washington, where soccer was still only considered a club sport, Denise was one of approximately 70 players invited to the Olympic Festival in Baton Rouge, La., in 1985, where Mike Ryan picked her to join what would become the first physical assemblage of the U.S. Women’s National Team later that summer. Selected by Mike as the team’s first captain, she appeared in all four games as a defender — but was never asked to try out for the team again. “That pissed me off,” said Denise, who shared more pointed feelings about that topic, as well as her brief role as team leader, in our book, Raising Tomorrow’s Champions. “Back in those days, if you wanted to play on the most special teams, they were always coached by men and you had to put up with a lot of crap that wouldn’t be acceptable today.”

The only known photo of the original 1985 National Team, with captain Denise front row, fourth from right (courtesy of Frank McDonald)

LIFELONG LOVE: Not making a team, having differences with a particular coach, or getting cut from your current team should never mean quitting the game altogether, according to Denise.  She continued her involvement with soccer for decades after her National Team career, coaching and winning numerous championships — including an over-40 title with a Copa de Vida team that included her friend, Jan Smisek, who was the first woman in America ever to obtain an “A” level coaching license. At age 50, Denise appeared in the Senior Cup in Australia, making it to the semifinals. In more recent years, she’s been involved in Seattle’s “walking” soccer league, an all-ages game played with a futsal ball that’s smaller and heavier than a traditional soccer ball.

Denise, left, drives to the goal in the 1980 club national championship game (courtesy of Frank McDonald)

THEN VS. NOW: “The skill level is definitely better overall in today’s players,” said Denise. “But there were a few players from my era who would have been stars today. Michelle (Akers) is a given. Michelle was formidable, she had a presence about her that was undeniable. I think I’d probably have to agree with the people who say she’s the best of all-time, but I would have liked to have seen Sharon McMurtry (USWNT 1985-86) keep going. She had a stature just like Michelle, but was much more clever with the ball.”

THE LEGACY: Denise feels that playing sports is empowering, especially for girls who may find it initially difficult to express their leadership skills in other ways. “I’m proud to be associated with a group of women from the National Team who have put themselves out there as leaders,” said Denise, who earned a master’s degree in industrial hygiene and now serves as assistant director of occupational safety and health at the University of Washington. “Through the years, and especially in recent years, these women are making bold statements. They are advocating for minorities and other groups of marginalized people. I think Megan Rapinoe is great. I do. But I also feel good about the mostly forgotten women who, in 1976, started a club soccer team in an era when society said women shouldn’t be playing soccer. They were told they should be housewives. I feel good about being a part of that group, too.”

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Published By Inspire Media Publishing