From Minneapolis to Rio

Pictured above: May 17, 2015; London, United Kingdom; Garrett Bender (left) and Nate Augspurger (right) celebrate after winning the London 7s Cup in the HSBC Sevens World Series at Twickenham Stadium.

This week, 28 U.S. athletes embark on the adventure of a lifetime as they gear up to compete against the best rugby teams in the world at the 2016 Olympic Games. Undoubtedly, the training, traveling and competing these athletes have experienced together while preparing for the Olympics has built a strong sense of camaraderie between the players, but few athletes can claim a stronger bond than the one shared between Garrett Bender and Nate Augspurger. In addition to both being members of the Resident Program where the pair live and train together at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, Bender and Augspurger also played on the same high school and club rugby teams.

Bender and Augspurger first met in high school - Bender was a sophomore and Augspurger was a senior. Though they went to different schools in Minneapolis, Minnesota, they both played for the Washburn High School rugby team. Bender began playing rugby as a freshman, inspired by a childhood friend who played the sport. Augspurger, on the other hand, had grown up around rugby - his older brother and father were both involved with the team, and his dad had gotten him throwing a rugby ball around at an early age.

After the two graduated from high school, their connection as teammates continued at the club level as members of the Minneapolis Youngbloodz. After a good showing in the 2011 Club Sevens National Championships, Bender was ultimately selected to join the first-ever Residency Program squad at the age of 19. That following summer, Bender and Augspurger joined forces on the club level once again, and this time, Augspurger was scouted to join the Residency Program. "We had spent a lot of summers together dreaming about being on the same team and playing international rugby together," says Augspurger. Finally, that dream came true when the pair took the pitch with the Eagles in Hong Kong in 2015. Now, they are nearly inseparable. "We're roommates on tour. We're pretty tight-knit. We always chuckle that this is what we talked about when we were younger. It's been one of the coolest experiences to be on the same team and both represent south Minneapolis," says Augspurger. Bender agrees: "I feel extremely lucky to be able to have a friend as close as Nate on the team - especially at this high level to be able to experience it all together. Just the conversations we've had and how everything we used to dream about has come's unreal."

Now, Bender and Augspurger's dreams have grown to include playing together in the Olympics. Though neither of them initially imagined they would be considered to be part of Team USA when the announcement was made in 2009, they both used the goal as motivation to improve their game. With plenty of grit and dedication, Bender was named to the Olympic roster and Augspurger was selected as a travel reserve.

When asked what they had been doing to prepare for Rio, Bender jokingly replied, "Getting our asses kicked." But Augspurger explained, "We've been going through fitness and conditioning, but it's all been raised to another level. All of the [training] we normally go through has been taken up a notch. Physically, we've had to be that much more committed to taking care of our bodies. We both have done some tweaking to our diets and eating habits to get the most out of ourselves." He continued, "On top of that, for most guys, and especially for us, we're trying to stay in the right mindset and not get distracted by how big the Olympics are. We're reminding each other that it's the same game, just on a different field. It's great for me and Garrett - we really rely on one another when things get crazy and the hype starts building up."

As the Minneapolis natives work to build their own rugby legacies, they are also considering the larger impact players and supporters can have on the sport in the United States. "There are a lot of small ways that people in the rugby community help players and coaches. For us as players, we're indebted to the next generation. We're doing everything we can to build a legacy for future players," says Augspurger. Both Augspurger and Bender recognize that a major part of supporting the rugby community includes making donations in order to develop the sport. "We need to make more opportunities," says Bender. "The goal is to grow the game in the United States, and we can't do that without funding. We need to get kids to camps and give them their fair share of opportunities just like Nate and I had that helped us get us where we are today." Augspurger agrees, "We hope fans realize that donating actually does matter. As players, we've had experiences where donations have made a difference, and that doesn't go unnoticed."

May 17, 2015; London, United Kingdom; Augspurger and Bender during the national anthem before the game against Australia in the HSBC Sevens World Series Cup Final at Twickenham Stadium.

Nate Augspurger and Garrett Bender recognize that rugby can only grow in the United States with the support of fans like you. Make a gift to the Men's and Women's Sevens programs today to help a future Olympian achieve his dreams tomorrow. Click here to make a donation.