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Former gymnast develops into an Ohio track star with Olympic aspirations as a hurdler

Gahanna Lincoln coach Roger Whittaker on Camden Bentley: "I watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly right before my eyes.”

By Aaron Blankenship | Photos courtesy of the Bentley family

Camden Bentley was a far cry from a track and field phenom when she started competing in the sport four years ago.

The Gahanna Lincoln junior was a much better gymnast than hurdler during her solid but unremarkable middle school track career.

And after Bentley failed to secure a spot as one of the Lions’ top two hurdlers during her freshman indoor track season, her coaches urged her to switch to pole vault as her freshman outdoor season approached.

Few could have imagined that Bentley would develop into the 2021 state champion in the 300-meter hurdles and one of the top high school hurdlers in the country.

“I was stunned as I watched a caterpillar turn into a butterfly right before my eyes,” said 33rd-year Gahanna girls track and field coach Roger Whittaker, who led the Lions to Division I state titles in 2015 and 2018. “Camden’s always been a good athlete, but she was just a so-so hurdler in middle school, and she was still an average hurdler her freshman year. Watching her rise from mediocrity to become a state champion as a sophomore was incredible, and now she’s vying to become the best hurdler in the nation.”

Jordan Rispress, who trains Bentley and many other top hurdlers at Ohio Speed Academy, echoed Whittaker’s sentiments about Bentley’s rapid ascent in the sport.

When Bentley began working with Rispress as a freshman, she often struggled to maintain her confidence and would sometimes shed tears of frustration at practice.

Rispress won a state title in the 300 hurdles and placed third in the 110 hurdles as a senior at Hilliard Darby in 2009, before competing at Clemson (2009-11) and Ohio State (2012-14).

He was a member of two ACC champion 1,600 relay teams in 2011 (indoor and outdoor) and was a member of a Big Ten champion 1,600 team and was second-team All-American in the 400 hurdles and 1,600 relay in 2014.

“There were days where she ran around the hurdles instead of going over them because she didn’t feel confident," Rispress said. "I remember one day, she didn’t go over a single hurdle during an hour and a half of training, and I had to talk her off the cliff because she was crying, feeling like she was wasting her parents’ time.

“I always knew she had the potential to get better because she’s such a hard worker, and she has a lot of talent. But Camden’s definitely a rare breed in that you don’t see many people who grow this quickly from being not being in the top three of their high school team to being a state champion a year later.”

Turning a negative into a positive

No one has been more surprised by Bentley’s rocket-ship-speed journey to the top of the state podium than the 17-year-old herself.

Bentley didn’t start running track until seventh grade, and she only gave the sport a try because she fractured her left wrist while playing volleyball and couldn’t compete in gymnastics the previous summer.

“I started doing gymnastics when I was 2 or 3, and I got up to Level 9, but I got burnt out and quit doing gymnastics after eighth grade,” Bentley said. “When I broke my wrist, I couldn’t tumble in gymnastics, so I decided to follow in my older brother Ty’s footsteps by running track.

“I really liked track, but I didn’t take it that seriously until COVID hit.”

Bentley began training with Rispress in preparation for her freshman track season, but she struggled to adapt to the tougher workouts and made slow progress over the first six months.

“I would get so frustrated and cry to my coaches because I didn’t know how I could finish my workouts at times,” Bentley said. “But I just put my head down and ran, and I slowly gained more confidence and got better.”

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out her freshman track season, Bentley elevated her training that spring.

Bentley improved her strength, endurance and speed by doing CrossFit training with Ty and her father, Kyle Bentley, at CrossFit Future in Blacklick.

Camden Bentley

Kyle Bentley — who wrestled at Kent State and served as Gahanna’s wrestling coach from 2007-16 — made four hurdles out of PVC pipes, which Camden used in the street in front of her home for an extra hour of training each day.

As Camden continued to get stronger and faster, Rispress gradually taught her to launch at hurdles from 6 1/2 feet away instead of waiting until she was closer.

“Camden was taking off from 5 feet and jumping really high over the hurdles,” Rispress said. “Taking off from 6 1/2 is scary at first, but as a hurdler you have to be a little crazy. I always told her, ‘Don’t think, just run,’ and when she got to that point, her confidence rose, and her times started dropping really quickly.”

Bentley exploded upon the high school scene as a sophomore, winning the 60 hurdles at the indoor state finale in 8.54 seconds, before going undefeated in the 100 and 300 hurdles all the way through the regional meet of the outdoor season.

In last year’s Division I regional meet, Bentley stunned spectators by winning the 100 hurdles with a personal-record time of 13.66, which ranks second all-time in the state behind Shaker Heights’ Delanda Jackson (13.64 in 2000).

“It’s still hard to believe that Camden improved so much from her freshman to sophomore year,” Rispress said. “Camden’s work ethic is tremendous, and last season was a perfect storm of specific workouts that taught her high-level skills and made her a lot stronger and faster.”

Bentley lost in the 100 hurdles for the first time at the state meet last season, after she clipped her foot on the final hurdle en route to finishing second (14.15) behind Westerville South’s Marissa Saunders (14.05).

Bentley bounced back by finishing first in the first leg of the 800 relay to help the Lions place third (1:40.51) at state.

“I was a little angry when I ran the relay because I wanted the title (in the 100 hurdles),” Bentley said. “But my good friend Marissa won, so I was happy for her.”

Bentley then won the 300 hurdles in a personal-record time of 43.18 to finish undefeated in the event.

“That was a surreal experience, standing on the top of the podium looking at everyone in the stands screaming,” Bentley said. “I felt relieved that I made it to that point, because I thought back to losing my freshman season to COVID and I never thought something like this would happen for me.”

Instead of resting on her laurels, Bentley worked even harder during the offseason and set an indoor state record in the 60 hurdles (8.49) in January.

She also placed sixth (13.7) in the 100 hurdles against elite competition from across the country in the Beach Run Invitational, held April 1 and 2 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

'Best athlete I've ever coached'

“Camden’s the best athlete I’ve ever coached,” said Whittaker, who was named the national Coach of the Year in 2018 by the National Federation of State High School Associations Coaches Association. “She’s also a versatile athlete who can do any event, like a heptathlete, and could possibly be a state champion in any of them. She decided she wanted to be a hurdler, and now she’s already become the No. 7 hurdler in the nation as a junior.”

Bentley is focused on trying to set new personal records in each of her events and is hoping to defend her state title in the 300 hurdles while also capturing her first 100 hurdles state championship.

Before she graduates, Bentley also is aiming to lead the Lions to a team state title, after Gahanna finished as state runner-up (36 points) behind Mentor (70) at last year’s state meet.

“Camden should easily break the state record this season, and the scary part is she’s still improving at a super-fast rate and hasn’t reached her limit,” Rispress said.

Bentley has drawn extra motivation to do her best from her entire family, including her grandfather, Richard Herbst, who passed away last year just months after watching Camden compete in the state meet.

Camden Bentley grandfather

“Losing my grandfather was really difficult to deal with because he’s always been so supportive of me and my track career,” Bentley said. “My whole family has been really supportive of me, and I want to do my best for them.

“My goal is to keep chasing my best times to try to lower my PR in each event. The better I’ve done, I’ve gotten more attention from college coaches and higher expectations from people in general. I used to joke about wanting to go to the Olympics, but that’s turned into a real goal for me.”

Bentley, who has a 3.9 cumulative grade-point average, sings and dances for Gahanna’s Show Choir in her spare time and can also speak Chinese.

The talented junior is getting recruited by several Division I coaches across the nation, as the prospects for her future in the sport get brighter with each passing season.

“It feels like we’ve had a world champion drop right out of the sky into our program,” Whittaker said. “Camden’s progressing to the point where her dream of competing in the Olympics is not out of the question. After how far she’s come in such a short amount of time, I certainly wouldn’t bet against her.”