It was an ordinary track meet, but when Bennet Vinken took a jump that he had done hundreds of times, his whole world flipped upside down. A 50% chance of walking again was suddenly his biggest concern, not trying to break a personal record.
Nebraska recruits athletes from around the world. Vinken, a long jumper from Hamburg, Germany, took a chance on a school in the middle of America.
Vinken’s track background came from his parents who both ran track in high school. It became evident this was something he wanted to do at a high level when he moved to Canada at 17-years-old for a high school exchange program.
“In Canada, I went to the gym a lot, gained a lot of weight,” Vinken said. “That led me to change to long jump and it turned out really well.”
After a year in Canada, Vinken went home to Germany where he excelled in long jump. During the 2018-2019 season, he became a multi-national champion, and competed in the European Championships, where he placed ninth.
“After the success in Germany, I was like ‘yep this is something I can really do,’” Vinken said.
In Europe, if an athlete wants to go to the states and play in college, a great start is to hire an agent. Vinken utilized a sports agent who got the ball rolling in the college recruiting process. His agent went to work and multiple universities reached out to him. Schools like Arkansas, Southern California, Minnesota, Michigan and Texas showed heavy interest. Nebraska became the front runner for the all-star long jumper. The Huskers’ coaches and facilities stood out and Vinken signed without taking an official visit.
“After I signed with Nebraska, I came to see how everything was and I really liked everything,” Vinken said. “I liked the team and thought this was a good place for me to grow.”
Nebraska Track and Field recruiting coordinator Matt Wackerly showed high engagement with Vinken while other universities took a more passive approach when they recruited him.
Once Vinken got on campus, he showed promise in his track numbers in his first year. In 2021, Vinken placed second with a season-best 24-5 (7.44m) in the Hawkeye Invitational. He posted a runner-up finish at the Larry Wieczorek Invitational with a mark of 23-10 ¾ (7.28m).
Vinken found success in his freshman season, but being halfway across the world made it a challenge to fit in. The COVID-19 pandemic had many restrictions at the time, and it was tougher to find social events and have in-person classes.
Attending college as a German-speaker created another barrier. Over time, he was able to hone his English skills. As the University of Nebraska-Lincoln classes slowly came back to fully in-person, Vinken was ready to make strides academically and socially.
“If you’re just super open-minded and know how to talk to people in classes, it’s a really good way to get to know people here,” he said.
During the beginning of Vinken’s track career, he made new friends outside of track. Mark Nusterer, a fellow German speaking friend, became great friends with Vinken. The two have been close throughout their time in college.
“Me and Bennet really bonded over our German background,” Nusterer said. “He has been through it all and he continues to show a great attitude.”
The fourth meet ever for Vinken’s long jump career did not go as planned. At a meet in Iowa, he had a jump where he was only an inch or two off his personal record. With excitement, the German jumper took his next jump and dislocated his foot.
“After the Iowa injury, the doctor said that I’m never going to do track again,” Vinken said. “Even the chance of walking was 50%. So, that was a pretty rough.”
After surgery, Vinken set a goal of returning to long jump. His determination did not deteriorate from his injury and Nebraska Athletic Trainer, Emma Ledbetter started working with him in July of 2021.
About six months after his injury, Ledbetter met with him twice a day, five days a week.
“He was always on time and worked 10 times harder than anyone else in the room,” Ledbetter said.
The rehab regimen for Vinken was a focus on balance, muscle control, motor function, strength and mobility. Throughout, he said he held a big smile on his face and never looked back at what could have been. Ledbetter also put a sharp focus on his mental health.
“Although he came in with a positive attitude every day, something like this, with any athlete with an injury, they have a sense of identity loss,” Ledbetter said.
Last March, Vinken finally found himself at a point where he could make a true comeback to long jumping. Just one day out from his comeback meet, Vinken re-injured his foot/ankle in simple drills. That was the first true sign that no matter what he could do, there was too much damage from his original injury.
Vinken officially retired from track and field at Nebraska after he consulted with his doctors and trainers.
“It absolutely broke my heart,” Ledbetter said. “He worked so hard, but his body couldn’t take it.”
Since he finalized the paperwork to retire, Vinken found a new role on the team as a student manager. He shows up to all the team’s practices and meets, and does his best to help his teammates improve. Roommate and teammate, Micaylon Moore, said he was moved by the way Vinken handled his injuries and what he has done for the team after the devastating news.
“He does everything in his power to make sure his teammates and I are the best we can be at practice,” Moore said. “He’s always motivating us and trying to push to the next level.”
The future for Vinken is uncertain, but the former long jumper continues to develop new goals and aspirations. He plans on pursuing an internship in the summer of 2023 and work towards a Master of Business Administration. Whether in the USA or Germany, Vinken plans to stay around the sport and continue to fight the unexpected obstacles in life.