Christian Faith

Gruenwald: Russia, Stopping a Thief, & The REAL HERO

gruenwald, singapore
Jim Gruenwald -- Photo: Wheaton College

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. He was an elite international competitor who 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.

Back in 2010, a friend of mine, John Orsay, asked me to be a wrestling liaison for him and his son Jacob at the World Championships which. were being held in Moscow, Russia. The tournament, as ever, was fun to watch. Great wrestling everyday. John and Jacob got to meet the USA Wrestling Team and other international names of interest, including 12-time World and Olympic Champion Alexander Karelin.

One morning before we headed over to the venue, we ate breakfast at a café right off Arbat Street. The morning was cool, grey, and drizzly; but since we would be indoors for the rest of the day, we chose to eat outside. We picked a table close to the building in the canopied outdoor part of the café that was partially surrounded by a short-wrought iron fence. I recall there being a gentleman sitting alone next to the fence eating a meal and reading a paper a few feet from us. We had just received our breakfast when there was a commotion by the other patron. Focused on my meal and oblivious, I asked John what happened and he said, “I think that guy just got robbed.”

I immediately exploded into action, jumped up, ran around the gate, and sprinted down the broad street after the criminal. In my haste, I nearly launched the table through the window of the café. Fortunately, John grabbed the table as it tipped and watched as I sprinted after the thief. I didn’t even know what the guy looked like, but as I ran, I noticed someone two blocks ahead running away. The chase was on.

Thinking he was safe, he slowed and casually looked behind him, and instantly realized he was being pursued. Not sure how I appeared, but his look of surprise turned into terror: he spun and fled down the street. As I barreled down on him, we neared the end of the street and a fenced off construction area. He skidded into the construction fence, ran a bit more and then tried running down some broken concrete into the lower construction area. Because of the mist, he slipped and fell the last few feet. By this time, I had caught up, saw his fall, and dropped to a bear crawl and scrambled down the concrete.

Just as I was about to pounce on him with my fist raised, security personnel at the construction site descended upon the robber and I and separated us. I started yelling and pointing, He’s a thief! Send him to jail! Send him to Siberia! Meanwhile, he is speaking Russian and laughing. I was the only one speaking English and began to realize that I was also likely reinforcing the “crazy American” stereotype. Security is trying to calm me down, telling me to leave to go get a jacket because it was raining. I think they were involved. I became irate and refused to move. The thief eventually walked over to some construction guys, bummed a cigarette, and watched my attempt to communicate. John and the victim of the theft eventually caught up with me, and John knew enough Russian to communicate that which I was unable to.

As John is explaining the situation, the thief’s accomplices arrived (John had watched them case the area looking for an easy steal, he shared this with me afterward — I had no idea) and started yelling down at the security. Security yelled back. I am eyeballing the new guys that had now entered the picture. John finishes explaining, and the main security officer looked at the thief and uttered a few words. In turn, the thief walked toward me and handed me a camera. I grabbed it, eyeballed him a bit, climbed up the broken concrete, and then eyeballed his buddies, too.  I then handed the camera to the owner. He thanked me, and in the ensuing conversation shared that he was from Singapore and visiting Moscow on business. As we were walking back, he said in a very mild voice, “You have impressive foot speed. If we were in Singapore, he would be in jail, and you would be King.”

So, ever since that day I have claimed to be the unofficial King of Singapore.

After returning to the hotel, and reeling from leftover adrenaline and excitement, I typed an email to my wife about my heroic endeavors on the streets of Moscow. I expected that she would praise my good deeds and reinforce the picture I had in my mind, one of a triumphant return to the States that would be greeted by her kisses and adoration. My delusions of grandeur were quickly crushed as I read her response. Essentially, she called me an idiot. She explained that I wasn’t bulletproof, and that I had a wife and five kids to consider. My response was, “I don’t have any bullet-holes in my body, so we don’t know for sure if I am bulletproof or not. And ‘when good men do nothing evil triumphs.’” As in most relationships, we reached a compromise. Yes, I am an idiot; but fortunately, in this instance, God protected the idiot; and I had done the right thing even though it was ridiculously dangerous.

My whole life I have been training for and hurling myself into intense situations. One of my life’s principles is that the strong exist to protect the weak. I will admit that thought was absent as I pursued the thief. I instinctively reacted to the situation. However — we don’t have to chase criminals down the streets of Russia to be a hero. A simple kind word, stepping in between a bully and his target, and helping those around us in times of need are heroic.

The world is starving for heroes, the evidence of which can be gleaned by the billions of dollars spent every year on superhero movies. Those heroes, like myself, are flawed. There is only one flawless Hero – Yeshua the Messiah. As Christians, we have the responsibility to be for others what He was for us. My challenge for us all is to be a hero to those we might encounter. Step in the gap. Fights are not what is necessary. It is about grace and truth, becoming a light that shines outward. And by doing so, others can come to Christ and act as heroes to someone else.

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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