Female athletes graduating from Thornapple Kellogg High School will have a new scholarship opportunity thanks to Julie Bender-Cleary and her parents Bob and Carol Bender.
The annual Julie Bender Women’s Athletic Scholarship of $500 will be awarded for the first time to a member of the graduating class of 2018.
"This scholarship is for any female athlete who competes in school athletics or outside school athletics," said Julie Bender. "There are a lot of club sports that don't get a lot of recognition like high school sports do. Often club level athletes aren't eligible for scholarships because they didn't compete for a high school team."
And she knows exactly what that's like.
Julie is a 1979 graduate of TKHS and an All-American gymnast at the University of Louisville. But for the most part, she competed in a club sport and not as part of a high school team.
"I was very successful at the club level and got a lot of attention from colleges and universities," she said. "But even with my successes, I didn't get recognized in high school because I wasn't part of the high school team until my senior year. That year I represented TKHS and was a state champion and named to Michigan High School All-State Team."
As a senior, competing at the club level Julie was an all-around state champion and advanced to club nationals. She even earned a full-ride scholarship to continue her gymnastics career at a Division 1 school at University of Louisville.
"This scholarship recognizes any female athlete in any sport. It doesn't have to be a high school sport - it can be at the club level or even a sport the high school doesn't offer like rowing or fencing or gymnastics," said Julie.
Her parents, Bob and Carol, said it's not just that Julie excelled in her gymnastics career, but that she overcame nearly impossible odds to do it.
During her freshman year at University of Louisville, Julie spent much of the year as the nation’s top all-around scorer and went on to earn All-American honors. She held four University of Louisville scoring records - all around, vault, balance beam and floor exercise. She also won the individual all-around title at the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women's Southern Region II in 1980 and repeated in 1981.
But then, things changed.
The University of Louisville cut the women's gymnastics program due to budget issues. Even more devastating was Julie's health. Because of a lifelong condition called scoliosis, discovered when she was in her early teens, Julie required a difficult spinal surgery where two nine-inch rods were inserted alongside her spine to help keep it straight.
She was confined to a body cast for 10 months and wondered if she would ever regain enough strength and flexibility to continue competing in gymnastics. She also didn't have a team at University of Louisville to go back to.
Luckily, Bowling Green University offered her a continued scholarship when she was able to come back from her surgery, but there was no guarantee she would be able to come back after such a difficult surgery.
But Julie wasn't going to give up and wanted desperately to compete again. One year and one week after the body brace was removed, Julie won the Mid-American Conference all-around title while at Bowling Green. She led her team that year and the next to two MAC titles.
It's an accomplishment she and her parents still marvel at to this day. Even her doctors weren't sure the level of gymnastics she would be able to compete at with two nine-inch rods surgically implanted in her back to keep her spine straight. It meant losing much of her flexibility - something a gymnast relies on especially in floor exercise and beam events.
She became the face of advertising for Kosiar-Children's Hospital in Louisville after her remarkable return from the surgery to her life as an award-winning gymnast.
Because of her success with the surgery, Julie did a lot of speaking with parents and potential patients about the surgery and her success from it. "It felt good to be able to encourage people to have the surgery and know they could still come back from it."
She didn't just come back to compete - she continued winning. After graduating from Bowling Green University in 1984 with a degree in sports management, Julie was elected into the Bowling Green State University Athletic Hall of Fame - only the third woman at the time to receive such an honor.
"Even though she was very successful in high school with club gymnastics she didn't get the recognition she would have had she been competing on a high school team," said Carol Bender. "We knew there are other girls in the same position and just wanted to develop a scholarship to help them and to honor Julie and what she accomplished."
Bob Bender said having the scholarship in Julie's name gives her the recognition at TK she earned, and also recognizes efforts of other female athletes. "I want to put my name athletically in a place I earned as one of the best athletes at my high school," Julie said.
Today, Julie Bender-Cleary owns a publishing company with her husband, Kevin, which is a national directory of college sports that serves as a useful tool for coaches and players looking for the right college fit athletically.
She has coached gymnastics at the high school and collegiate levels and worked as a gymnastics judge as well. She's traded competing in gymnastics to a love of running and competing in numerous marathons and other races.
Bob and Carol said they hope the scholarship not only helps a young female athlete afford college but also inspires her to continue doing her best against even the toughest odds.
The scholarship is established through the Thornapple Area Enrichment Foundation.
Eligibility requirements for the scholarship include:
1) Students must be graduating from TKHS.
2) Students must be a female.
3) Students must be accepted to an accredited college, university, vocational or technical school.
4) Students must excel in sports during high school; however, the sport does not have to be a school-sponsored sport (example: gymnastics, rowing)
5) Students must provide a letter of recommendation from a teacher.
6) Students will be evaluated on essay content.
The scholarship is a one-time non-renewable award of $500.
TAEF currently has 33 scholarship funds which award 40 scholarships each year. The scholarship application process opens Dec. 1 and deadline for applications is March 1, 2018.
TAEF was established in 1992 with a $32,000 gift from Fern Poland Trouyout. Today, TAEF has grown to more than 32 funds and more than $1 million. More than $50,000 in scholarships are awarded to TK students and graduates annually.