Adam Bender: Wrestling with Your Differences
Adam, a Lexington native, was born with infantile fibrosarcoma, a rare form of cancer in his left leg. Weighing the option to begin a tough road with chemotherapy, Adam's parents made the tough decision to have his leg amputated just days after his first birthday.
"Losing my leg at such a young age, it may have been good for me because I was able to adapt to my environment and my surroundings without ever knowing life on two legs, so I didn't really have to make any adjustments," Adam said. "Everything I did was learned from one leg to start with."
Growing up with a brother, Steven Bender, a year older than him made Adam competitive from the start. He remembers watching Steven play soccer games when he was three. Adam would use his crutches to help him kick soccer balls across the field after Steven's games with the rest of the younger kids.
That's when Adam's parents started allowing him to kick the ball around the house. Despite him using canes to get around the soccer field, his parents quickly realized that maybe he could participate in sports at the same level as Steven.
"I wanted to go out there and do what he was doing," Adam said.
By age four, Adam's parents signed him up to play soccer, throwing him into the deep end with the rest of the kids.
"I always believed in myself and I believed that I could get the job done," Bender said. "Your mind is going to take you further than anything else in life."
After the Herald-Leader made a viral video feature on Adam, ESPN came to town specifically to document him and his ability to play sports on one leg. That blew a young Adam's mind. He was the type of kid that watched ESPN's flagship program, "SportsCenter," every day before school.
"It was definitely a life-changing experience and something I'll never forget," Adam said.
He eventually played more than just soccer. He played flag football and baseball, and at age seven he found the sport that would transform his life: wrestling.
He realized that he was able to compete at the same level as his bipedal peers. He took that mindset and pinned it to the mat.
Adam's father, Chris Bender, wrestled at Franklin County High School and had heard of a Division I wrestler named Anthony Robles. Robles, a one-legged wrestler himself, won the NCAA Championship at the 125-pound weight class in 2011. Chris figured his son had accomplished anything he set his mind to before, so why would wrestling be any different?
"He took me to my first practice and ever since then I fell in love with wrestling," Adam said.
Adam cut his teeth at the Bluegrass Wrestling Club and Carr Wrestling Academy. While he was a member of the Stallions, he met former Woodford County wrestler Joe Patterson — someone who was instrumental in Adam's development on the mat.
While learning under Joe Carr Sr. and Joe Carr Jr. at their lucrative wrestling school, Adam reiterated with them not to take it easy on him. They obliged and worked him harder than anyone else they coached.
"I wanted that," Adam said. "I mean, there's no way to get to the top if coaches are trying to give you the benefit of the doubt or they don't tell you that you're slacking. Don't just think that I can't because I have one leg, then that's only going to hurt [my performance]."
Adam had all the confidence in the world heading into his sixth grade year but failed to place in the middle school state tournament, which honors the top six wrestlers in the state. That was the motivation he needed. Adam doubled down that offseason and came back more prepared than ever.
Adam was upset with himself but put in the hours necessary to eventually place third in the state tournament. In the eighth grade, he had no competition whatsoever, winning the state title with ease. Adam was ready for the high school level, to say the least.
He was set to enroll at Lexington Catholic High School in the fall of 2014 but ran into one problem: the school didn't offer a wrestling program. Enter Patterson back into the fold, who returned to Lexington after a brief stint training with the Puerto Rican national wrestling team. The fit was perfect.
"Coach Patterson was one of the first ones to not look at me different," Adam said. "He just pushed me and pushed me because he knew what I was capable of. He believed in me."
Adam completed his freshman and sophomore season at Lexington Catholic where he compiled a 75-11 record and placed fourth in the KHSAA state tournament during both seasons. The program folded after his sophomore season and has yet to reopen, which means Adam will likely forever be the winningest wrestler in Lexington Catholic history.
A change in scenery was exactly what Adam needed heading into his junior year in 2016.
"I felt like I wasn't getting any better. I just felt like I was plateauing at Catholic," he said. "I only had so many partners. It was literally me wrestling with the assistant coaches because the kids at Catholic had never even shot a single leg before."
There were only about seven wrestlers on the team his sophomore year. He desperately needed better competition and quickly found it when he decided to transfer to Woodford County.
"The wrestling tradition is a lot richer. That was where I needed to be because I knew that ultimately, I was going to look to wrestle in college and I didn't think I was going to get to where I needed to be at Catholic, so I had to make the move," Adam said.
In two years wrestling for the Yellow Jackets, Adam ended his high school career with an 83-10 record (158-21 overall), including a 49-2 junior season that saw him place third in the state tournament, the highest in his career. He also placed fifth as a senior, something that pushed him to pursue college wrestling.
"I can't go out this way," he said.
Chris Freije, the head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan at the time, recruited Adam, and it seemed like a great fit. Ironically, Freije was the Arizona State University roommate of Robles, the one-legged national champion that got Adam into wrestling in the first place. It was an offer Adam couldn't pass up.
He committed and has been with the Panthers for the past four years. Currently a redshirt junior, he injured his meniscus earlier this season and is sidelined for the remainder of their schedule. He plans to transfer from the program with two seasons of eligibility remaining due to the COVID-19 rule allowing an extra year of eligibility for all collegiate athletes.
"It's definitely a lot tougher than high school and it's a grind, but it's definitely something that I would do over again," he said. "I recommend anyone wanting to compete outside of high school and enter the next level that they seriously consider it because it's something that'll change your life."
He's seen success at the youth, high school and now collegiate level on and off the mat. Adam credits his support staff for helping him at every level. He knows he couldn't have done it without them.
"Trust yourself, be strong-minded," he said. "It's not always going to be easy, but if you just work hard enough and you look at things from a different perspective and try to be positive, things are going to work out for you."