During his remarkable career as a Greco-Roman athlete, Jim Gruenwald managed to become a two-time Olympian and one of the unquestioned leaders of the US National program. As an elite international competitor, Gruenwald was uncompromising and vicious on the mat; yet filled with a love for Christ and a willingness to passionately share his faith off of it. Today, he is the head coach at Wheaton College in Illinois, as well as a highly-influential voice pertaining to all matters of encouragement, devotion, and Christian servitude. Now also an author, Gruenwald’s first book Not All Roads Lead to Gold was published in 2022, and his forthcoming work titled Not All Roads Lead to Gold: Parents Edition (A Guide to Help Parents Navigate Youth Sports) is due out later this year.
I remember in high school looking at my dad’s copy of The CrossFace. I do not recall how often it was published, but in Wisconsin The CrossFace was the go-to source for wrestling. It had everything from tournaments and results to rankings and highlights. Each year at the start of a new season, The CrossFace published their preseason rankings, and as a junior in high school I was listed at #6.
You can complain about rankings, which does nothing; or, you can hunt down everyone ranked above you and prove the rankings wrong. Which is the direction I decided to take.
Over the course of the next wrestling season, my mindset was to track down every single wrestler who was ranked above me. Not an easy feat: the rankings were non-divisional, and Wisconsin had three public school divisions, while the private schools had a separate state tournament. The two biggest names I still remember were the #1 ranked wrestler from a private school, Mike Nockels (a four-time private school state champion), and the #3 ranked wrestler, Ron Pieper, who had defeated me the year prior in the 98 lb. state finals 8-4. By the end of the summer of 1987, I was on top of the ladder at 112. I had beaten Pieper in the finals of 112 Class A (largest division) by a score of 10-2, and then defeated Nockels in the finals of the 114.5 Wisconsin Junior Freestyle championships.
By the time I reached the Senior Greco-Roman scene, this mindset had been ingrained in me. USA Wrestling had rankings, as did FILA (now United World Wrestling). Same deal — find the better guys, beat them, establish dominance in the US, and then the world. The process included entering our sport’s toughest tournaments such as the Granma Cup in Cuba, the Ivan Poddubny Memorial in Russia, the Hungarian Grand Prix, and the Swedish Grand Prix. I wanted to hunt down and vanquish the world’s best competitors.
There were setbacks along the way. There were also times when I showed up to hunt big game with a BB gun. I lost to Dennis Hall, 1995 World Champion and 1996 Olympic Silver Medalist, for 11 years, and it took another two years before I was able to assume a solid foothold as #1 in the US, and I was never ranked #1 in the world. But there were lessons to be learned, reset buttons to be pressed, and a constant strain to reach #1.
And when you are #1, regardless of the level, what happens then? A target appears on your back. You become the hunted. The question is, how do you respond?
The proper response is to pull the target off your back and instead plaster it on the center of your chest, and say “Come get some!” In the end, the hunt is ultimately about embracing, not avoiding, the hardest competition. Steve Fraser constantly preached to “enjoy the battle.” Not ‘have fun’, not ‘win’, not ‘don’t lose’, but to enjoy the hunt for hard competitions and hard matches. You will never become the best by being afraid of tough situations or avoiding them altogether.
Life, and Spiritual life, are the same way. James 4:7 in the Bible provides critical instructions to this effect: “Submit to God. Moreover, take a stand against the adversary, and he will flee from you.” The most powerful force of evil, and we are told to resist him. He will flee from us, but this is only possible when we submit to God first.
And in those hard moments, when the battle seems too great, remember there is little to no faith in what comes easily: “Rejoice in this, even though for a little while you may have to experience grief in various trials. Even gold is tested for genuineness by fire. The purpose of these trials is so that your trust’s genuineness, which is far more valuable than perishable gold, will be judged worthy of praise, glory and honor at the revealing of Yeshua the Messiah (1 Peter 1:6-7).”
The biggest matches, the hardest moments, and the general struggles in life we may encounter are meant to purify our faith.
If you would like to follow up with Coach Gruenwald regarding faith development, or if you are someone who is searching, or just someone who is looking for help navigating life, he can be reached directly via email.
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