Still Driven: Jim Gruenwald On Faith, Wrestling, and Identity

jim gruenwald, wheaton college
Jim Gruenwald -- Photo: Wheaton College

It’s enough to keep you up at night.

There is a turf war in the mind of competitors. Wrestlers fight it perhaps more than anyone. The battles are ongoing. Always in progress. A nonstop carousel of questions, doubts, self-reassurances, and silent promises professed in constant rotation. The spinning doesn’t stop. All of the “PMA” rhetoric in the world isn’t going to offer quarter, certainly not long enough for true comfort or confidence.

Identity is the real culprit here. Many athletes warp who they are with what they have accomplished, forgetting the sheer fact that you can’t be a “thing.” At best, you’re a vessel of achievement; at worst, a victim of the ego. Because, as everyone knows, all Sysyphsyian attempts at greatness have to end in vain. 

Jim Gruenwald’s advantage is that he is not held prisoner by his identity. Instead, Gruenwald takes refuge in his faith, and that is with which he identifies the most. It is where the conversation begins and ends. Considering his career as a decorated world class Greco-Roman athlete, that is really saying something.

Following a sparkling four years at Maranatha Baptist University in his native Wisconsin, Gruenwald took up shop in the newly-formed resident program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to pursue international competition full-time. He did his best to chase 1996 Olympic silver medalist Dennis Hall down, and once he did, he held onto his spot until retirement, making three World Teams, two Olympic Teams, and amassing 30 international tournament medals. That would appear to be plenty for someone to hang their hat on, wouldn’t it?

Not for Gruenwald. To him, each match, each prolonged struggle, each life decision — is an opportunity to glorify God. This is not something about which he is the slightest bit bashful. So then it should be no surprise that the lessons he instills in his wrestlers at Wheaton College in Illinois have more to do with improving outlooks and shaping faith-based competitive endeavors than hanging medals and abiding by imaginary measuring sticks for success. How could it be any other way, especially when you’re guided by something much bigger than the world around you?

5PM Interview with Jim Gruenwald

5PM: You came out of retirement in 2007 to take a shot at making the ’08 Olympic Team. You were also an assistant coach at the time with the Northern Michigan program, where one of your wrestlers (Joe Betterman) was the top guy at your weight. Was this a difficult thing for you to decide on or was your mind made up pretty quickly?

Jim Gruenwald: Leading up to that, a lot of people thought I just needed a different place to train. And so, (former US National Team head coach Steve) Fraser encouraged me to go up there to train. Ivan (Ivanov, USOEC head coach) actually thought that I was going to keep competing. But you know, I was 34 about to turn 35. I had a dislocated shoulder, I had been to two Olympics, and so I thought maybe it’s time for me to kind of pass the baton. I mentored Joe Warren quite a bit and figured with the things that I gave him in the room and bringing him to the Worlds a couple of times, that he had all the tools that he needed and that I should just focus on the next generation.

And so I went up there to work with Ivan and I always kind of had this itch. I had retired, but I called it mostly retired. Ivan said I was going to wrestle, but I thought it was better for me to move on and just be a coach. I was working out in the room and he actually had another coach visiting one time and he goes, “Gruenwald is working out just as hard as everybody else.” And I got to the point where the younger guys — and this was before Joe (Warren) had won his World title — where I was just getting frustrated because no one was doing anything at the international level. So I just said to them, “Listen, if you guys don’t step up your game, I’m going to come out of retirement and I’m going to kick your butt.” And they were like, Whatever, you’re an old man. Just keep on coaching us. Then Joe (Warren) got into trouble for the positive test and the younger guys were just kind of going through the motions. Maybe that’s too harsh; they weren’t going through the motions, but they weren’t doing what I thought they needed to do.

Ivan and I talked about it and he said, “Jim, you gotta do this.” So I called up (Rich) Bender and Fraser and said, “I have the itch to wrestle and it’s not like I won’t still coach these guys. I’ll coach them to beat me. But I want to compete again and I feel like I’m the best shot that you have at qualifying the weight and medaling at the Olympics.” They were like, Go ahead, we actually thought you were going to wrestle the whole time you were up there.

I pulled the trigger, and like a week later, I tore my MCL. I was like, Are you kidding me? Then I go to Sunkist with the torn MCL and (Joe) Betterman just launches me with the new rules (Reverse lock from par terre — Ed.). I wasn’t used to the reverse lift and he just crushed me in the finals. It was embarrassing. So I just went back to work to figure out that position because I knew I was good enough on the feet, but I had to figure out that position and get better at it. Then we went to the National tournament and I all but walked through it. I think I had two close periods in the semifinals and ended up tech’ing Willie Madison, and had Betterman in the finals. After the butt-whooping he gave me at Sunkist, I made some adjustments and I think the scores were something like 5-0 and 8-3.

But yeah, it was fun. I don’t ever regret doing it. The only thing that was difficult about it is that when we got back to the room, Ivan kind of stuck it to the guys a little bit. He was like, Look, you see what Jim does? He works hard. I could just see them all staring at me and this was not what I wanted. I just wanted to go out and do what I felt I could do. And then of course, two weeks later I dislocated my shoulder again and had to get a second shoulder surgery, going back to being mostly retired and just a coach. But it was a fun run, I don’t regret it at all.

5PM: Why would you? If we’re being honest, I don’t think we see it enough. If anything, I think that’s part of the problem with our country, we put our older athletes out to pasture too early when they still have a lot to give.

JG: Oh, yeah. We’re like a lot of 1980’s bands or one-hit wonders. We go out and do something, and then you don’t ever see us again. That’s why there are guys like (Buvaisar) Satiev. When someone asked Satiev once about Brandon Slay, he was like, “Who’s Brandon Slay?” Well, this is a guy who beat you at the Olympics, but I understand his point. Satiev won three Olympics. Brandon Slay, God bless him, he’s awesome, he won an Olympic gold medal, but compared to someone like Satiev or Karelin, who is a 12-time World and Olympic champion? Sometimes Americans are just blips on the screen to these guys.

I get that. The days of guys like John Smith or Ben and John Peterson, who were my mentors… I mean Ben would have wrestled at three different Olympics if we didn’t boycott. It was a long time, he was in it for a long time. It wasn’t fly-by-night. It wasn’t, I’m really talented, I’m going to do something and then I am going to get out and go do something else. It was a passion to them and I think we lose that a little bit when guys are just thinking more about — and I don’t think everyone is like this — but guys are just thinking more about the money sometimes. They’re not thinking about the value of a longer-term commitment to leaving a legacy. I don’t know if legacy is the right word, but doing something more than what they are. There are some really talented guys.

I think (Jordan) Burroughs has got it right. He has the right mindset. It’s more than just winning a World or Olympic title. I think (Kyle) Snyder has it right, too, just because he enjoys wrestling and he’s going to wrestle as long as he enjoys doing it. But we’ll see, he’s only been around for a couple of years, so we’ll see what he does.

But no, I don’t know if it’s part of our culture or if it’s something more systemic. I’d like to see guys stick around a little longer and have long-term success so these foreigners don’t look at us like we’re one-hit wonders.

5PM: I’d imagine that the structure of sports governance in this country plays a huge role in that.

JG: Absolutely. I mean, I was at the Olympic Training Center for 12 years. I got there in 1993, I left in 2005. And in the entire 12 years I was there, I was working a job. I was a high school math teacher. I would get up in the morning to train and then I would teach high school math for five hours, and then I would go and train again. I’d come home, grade some papers, spend a little time with my wife, go to bed, rinse and repeat. And I did that for 12 years. It was brutal.

5PM: I doubt I am alone, but I identify you really strongly with faith. Your career is one thing, but when I think of you, that’s how it is. Part and parcel, you and faith.

JG: I love the fact that you said that, because honestly, to me, that’s more important. I’m glad you put it as faith and not religion, just because I think there’s so much silliness involved with religion. You talk about faith, well, that’s what drove me. That’s what drove my career to a great degree. It frames who I am. I didn’t want my identity to be wrapped up as being just a wrestler. I wanted my identity to be wrapped up in something that is more meaningful and greater than wrestling. So when you say that to me, that comes across as a positive. And again, I think you can be a man of faith and a successful wrestler. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. A great example would be Ben and John Peterson. They did it far better than I did. Jordan Burroughs is the same way. No, I think that’s awesome.

5PM: Like you just mentioned, how do you reconcile being a person of faith and also, being able to turn it on as vicious competitor? It seems like it could potentially result in a contradiction of sorts, simply due to the optics.

JG: You know, it’s simple. There are rules in our sport and I never stepped across any lines. Now, I’m going to be very blunt. One time I walked off the mat and I was with TC Dantzler, and he goes, “Wow, you are such a dick when you wrestle.” His words. At first I was like, What? It’s not like I’m doing anything illegal. He said, “No, you’re not, you’re just a hard-nosed wrestler and you just want to crush the person.” It’s a fight, right? Wrestling is a fight. It’s a martial art but it has rules. It’s not like I ever thumbed anyone in the eye. I wrestled guys who thumbed me in the eyeballs, I’ve had guys biting me or grabbing my crotch. I had guys do cheap stuff to me. I had my head split 13, 14 times from guys headbutting me and I’m getting stitches. Right? I never did that to anybody. But I could still put the hurt on them.

And the reason I can do that and how I reconcile that is I wrestle within the rules, there’s nothing wrong with it, and I look to Christ, which is who I’m told to frame my life after and follow. He was a very intense individual. If He could be intense the way he was supposed to be, then I can be intense within the sport of wrestling.

I think if anything, my faith made me stronger because it drove me. I wanted to be as tough as Christ, and toughness isn’t what you can dish out, toughness is what you can endure. I tell you what, the toughest thing I’ve ever done was after I dislocated my shoulder at the 2003 World Championships, getting ready to wrestle in the National Championships five and a half months later following being in a sling for six weeks. That was the most I ever had to endure in wrestling. Giving out a beating isn’t tough, it just means you’re better than the guy. Going through that brutal six months, that was hell, or at least as close as I ever want to get to it. I don’t think there is anything at all as a man of faith, as a Christian, that says I can’t be tough, rugged, and brutal when I’m wrestling so long as I don’t step across those lines where it’s illegal.

Jim Gruenwald, 2008 US Greco Roman nationals

Gruenwald battling Willie Madison at the 2008 US Nationals. (Photo: John Sachs)

5PM: Being an athlete, especially a successful one, and then a coach I believe qualifies you as a public figure. As someone people know and also, someone who isn’t shy to talk about your faith or be demonstrative about it, is that sort of a calling? Or is it a role you had to grow into?

Jim Gruenwald: You know what? It’s who I am. I’ll give you a perfect example. When I was initially hired to go up to the USOEC and help coach with Ivan, I looked at the message boards and people said,Oh, he’s going to proselytize to those guys up there. That wasn’t my job. My job was to go up there and coach. But when I arrived, I told those guys very clearly, I’m a Christian, I say so unashamedly. If you want to know what I believe, you can ask me. But when I’m in the wrestling room coaching you guys, sometimes I will use “God” or “Christ” because those are words in my vocabulary.

I’ll say something like, You were created by God in a certain way to do something. That’s not me proselytizing; that is language I use to let you know this is how the body works. If you want to call it science, call it science, but this is how I frame it. And the other thing is there was a morality that came with me, as well. I told the guys once again, Listen, I’m not going to push my Christian values on you, but if you think you can go and be out drinking and whoring around and still be an Olympic-level athlete, then you are sadly mistaken. Because, I spent 12 years at the Olympic Training Center and saw guys who were much better athletes than me going out at night and on weekends trying to get laid and getting hammered, and they weren’t making World and Olympic Teams. Much better athletes than me. 

I owned that weight class for five years and I was top-2 at that weight from 1997 all the way through to 2004-2005, right? And I was one of those guys who I don’t think was supremely gifted as an athlete, and I am comparing myself to people who were around and were better athletes. But I did come to the table with some things other guys didn’t have. The bottom line is, I had to scratch and claw to get to the top, it wasn’t an easy road. I had to make sure that I did things right. There are very few superstars at the Olympic level. Armen Nazaryan, Alexander Karelin, those guys are superstars. Those are guys whom if they’re on, you just can’t touch. When Nazaryan was at his best, people could not touch him. He was amazing. When he wasn’t at his best, guys like me could take him into overtime or put him up against the wall and have it become a 1-1 match before dislocating your shoulder like I did in 2003.

I went to the USOEC not to proselytize those guys, but I did want to bring a sense of morality that says you have to live a right life to be able to be the best. And that most guys, even the superstars, if they start cheating and cutting corners with how they live? They are going to pay the price and it’s going to cost them a medal.

Now I did have a Bible study, but it wasn’t mandated. I told them, If any of you are believers, or if any of you guys are searching, on my dime or we could put some money in a pot, we’ll buy some pancakes, bacon, and eggs, I’ll make them, and I’ll share a little bit from the Word. If you’re interested, great. And if you’re not, you’re not. It wasn’t forced, but it was definitely a part of who I am, so it’s not like I can separate the two any more than I could as a coach or an athlete.

So when people say, Great job, I’m like, Yeah, it was. But I’ve got to thank my parents, my training partners, my coaches, God, who gave me a body to be able to do this kind of stuff. I have to thank everybody because honestly, it’s their fault I won. When I lose, it’s my fault. But when I win, it’s my parents’ fault. I blame you, mom and dad. I blame my training partners. I blame my coaches. And I blame my God. Nowadays, when people lose they want to blame everybody else. They are blaming the wrong people. When you lose, you blame yourself. When you win, you blame others.

5PM: Do you think that there are a lot of athletes out there who have certain faithful values but are afraid to talk about it in the open?

JG: Yeah, I mean, I think it depends on the kid, too, and what kind of a position (they’re in). And I’m not one of these conspiracy theorists who thinks everybody is against Christians. I still think we live in a country when you can speak your faith. I think some people aren’t comfortable with those who are zealous about it, and I think some people like having faith but don’t want to talk about it. I do see that more and more. I am at Wheaton College where I can be very vocal about it, although I am vocal about it in other places. Appropriately vocal, I believe. It’s not like I would ever push it down people’s throats but if they ask me, I would definitely speak about it.

Some people still want to talk about their faith. Me personally, I feel if you believe something and it’s how you communicate, people are going to ask you questions and you have to communicate the answer. But again, I’m not going to force it. It’s not like I walk up to people and say, Hi, I’m Jim Gruenwald and I am a Christian, and I am going to tell you what I believe. No. But I live my life appropriately. If people want to know what drives me and what makes me who I am, well, my response a lot of times is, Are you really sure you want the answer to that? Because I don’t know where they’re coming from. They are like, Yeah, what drives you? My faith drives me. I look at what Christ did on the cross for me and I’m like, How can I not give my all when I look and see what the leader of my faith did for me? How can I not try to make a similar effort? Listen, I tell my college guys, Work so hard every single day of your life that heart explodes and if it doesn’t, you got better that day. And if it does, you’re in heaven. What’s the downside?

That’s what I tried to do when I was competing. There were times at the training center. back when I was still just an athlete, I had made a promise to myself that three days a week after the afternoon practice I had to do a hundred pull-ups after practice in three sets. Had to do them. So I would finish practice, run over to the pull-up bar, and start doing pull-ups. I remember guys would walk by me, they’d look, and they would make their comments like, Oh, you’re not going all the way down. And there was a part of me that just wanted to rail on them and say, I’m not going all the way down? You’re not even doing it! You’re going to chirp at me for not going all the way down? I’m doing 100 pull-ups in three sets and you’re walking over to the drinking fountain, that’s how you’re finishing up practice. Then we’d get to Nationals and I’m placing first or second. You know, I took second seven years in a row before I finally won.

These same guys a week before the National tournament or the Trials would be like, Hey, would you work out extra with me? No! Now’s not the time to be working out extra, now is the time at this station in training where you’re pulling back. You only want to work out more because you know you didn’t put the time in. I wouldn’t be a jerk and say that to them, but I was thinking it. I’d just say, No, it’s not part of my training right now. I had done my 100 pull-ups three times a week. Now you want to do extra? No, now I have to rest and get my body recovered for the Nationals, the Olympics, or the Worlds. Because I know what it’s like to overtrain. That’s why there were times Momir (Petković) kicked me out of the room and he would say, You’ve done enough, go. And then I’d run and try to get on the treadmill. He’d find me and say, No, get out of here. I told you to go back to your room. So you listen to your coach.

Ben Peterson told me the same thing. Dan Chandler. All of them — Momir, Dan, and Ben all were like, You’re doing too much too close to the National tournament, too close to the Olympics, too close to the Worlds. Go back to your room and rest. So I did what my coaches told me because they were right. Periodization of training. I didn’t understand it as an athlete, but I do now as coach.

The point of the story is that going back to it, my faith drives me. It drove me as an athlete, and initially, I think as a coach. And the fact that for years I didn’t come home with World or Olympic medals drove me as a coach. That was something that was brutal for me because I had won 10 international events, I medaled in 30 international events. I was a Pan Am champ, a World Cup champ, but in the Worlds, the best I could ever do was fourth. I took sixth in the Olympics, tenth in the Worlds, then eighth in the Worlds, fourth in the Worlds, and then tenth at the Olympics. I placed in the top-10 but I never medaled in the Worlds or the Olympics. I had a five year streak where I was the man, but I never brought home any hardware.

For a while as a coach, that drove me. But that’s not good enough. As you do as an athlete, you have to let your faith drive you as a coach. You have to be more concerned about these guys than what you consider your failures. You have to drive these guys in a positive way, you have to mentor them. But also, let them learn from your mistakes so they can stand on your shoulders and see so much further than you ever did. And so, I coach them driven by my faith and I have a hard time saying it, but not by my failures. That’s really what it was, if I’m being honest.

5PM: What do you mean?

Jim Gruenwald: There were times, if you talk to Fraser, talk to Momir, talk with anyone who was ever around me, I wanted to be the hardest-working guy in the room. But there were times when I didn’t listen to my coaches the way that I should have. There were times where I needed to spend more time on par terre doing defense. See, I was good on top. But there were times I went to tournaments and I didn’t get put down in par terre a single time because I was so dominant on my feet. My pace was so good I didn’t have to worry about going down in par terre; but if I did, they were so tired by the time they got on top. But when you get to the Worlds or the Olympics, it doesn’t make a difference how good you think you are on your feet, or even if you are good on your feet, you can push the guy all over the mat. But against these World and Olympic champs, you’re going down. And if you go down, you better have good defense and my defense wasn’t good enough. There were times when my coaches would be like, Jim, you’ve gotta change, you’ve gotta adjust it. And then I’d use that for a little bit but I wouldn’t sustain it.

That was probably my biggest failure as an athlete, that I didn’t buy into my coaches’ plans 100% and it bit me in the butt because I needed to be better in one area of my wrestling and it cost me. I could score on most people from top and I could beat most people on the feet, if not all of them. But there were times I was weak in par terre and I missed moments and it cost me medals. So that was my failure as an athlete. It wasn’t working hard, it wasn’t laying it all out there, it wasn’t trying to push myself so hard my heart exploded. It was the small things that I missed, and that is what I communicate to my athletes now. You’ve got to follow the plan, because if you do, it’s on the coach. If you don’t, it’s on you and it should never be on you. I mean, you do what you can. Obviously, there are so many variables that go into it, and other people might argue, Jim, he was maxed out. You know, I beat guys who were World and Olympic champs, but maybe I maxed out. My best was fourth at the Worlds so I just thought, Maybe I’m delusional? I thought I could be a World and Olympic champ and I never did it.

So maybe I’m delusional, maybe I maxed out. Or maybe I didn’t follow the plan the coaches had 100%.

5PM: Are the disappointments worse now as a coach than they were as an athlete?

JG: No. No, no, no. It’s harder to be a coach than it is an athlete. It’s an emotional roller-coaster, right? Because when I was an athlete, I’d get all fired up and then you get to go on the mat and burn off a lot of that energy. You can burn off a lot of those emotions. It sucks to lose and I hated it. After I lost, I’d go and find kind of a cold, dark place because it felt like a part of you had died. That’s how much it hurt to lose. I would cry like a little kid. There were some people who saw that, but not a lot of people did. I would find a place and I would just weep. But then it was cathartic, it was over. Then I could just hit the reset button and I could go back and remember that pain, and I hated it. It would make me train a little bit harder, it would make me do a little bit more. It made me want to outwork everyone around me.

But as far as the disappointment? I can’t be disappointed in guys who are laying it on the line out there. I’m not disappointed. I may be disappointed that they lost, but I’m never disappointed in them. I was never really disappointed in myself, it’s more that I was disappointed in the results. I very definitely try to lead a life of no regrets. I wanted to leave it all out on the mat and my guys see what I preach and they buy into it. I believe I have captured their hearts and their minds. Not for me, but in the sense that the same faith that drove me drives them.

But I will go back to what I said initially: coaching is an emotional roller-coaster and you’ve got no real way of burning off those emotions the way you did as an athlete. I tell you what, I’ve gotten to the point now where I’ve got to get a workout in either before a tournament or after. I have to do something just to get that out of my system. Have that same cathartic closure because if you don’t, it will just chew you up inside.

That’s one of the awful things about being a coach. It’s awesome being a coach, but you are always judged on other people’s performances. You could be the greatest coach in the world and your guys have a bad day or a bad weekend, and then all of the sudden you have alumni or your superiors wondering, Why aren’t you performing, why aren’t your guys performing? When you know you’ve done just about everything right, they just had a bad day, but you’re being judged by their performance. And it’s awful. That’s the hardest thing about being a coach. But it’s also rewarding when you can take someone and you can give them a vision so far beyond what they had for themselves. That’s one of the joys I think working at the DIII level is that you can give them a vision they may not have for themselves. You can paint them a picture and get them to buy into it, and that’s awesome. I’m sure DI coaches do the same thing, they will paint their guys a picture of being a couple-time DI national champ even if they had only been national qualifiers or All-Americans. Or you get them to paint a picture of something beyond college wrestling. I heard Tom Brands talking about how he’s looking for guys who want to be World and Olympic champions and I think that’s awesome.

To go back to your original question, being a coach I think that sometimes the losses are disappointing, but I’d never been disappointed in my guys unless they did something morally wrong, silly, or stupid. But there is forgiveness, there’s grace and mercy, and you move on.

Jim Gruenwald, Wheaton College, Feature Interview

Gruenwald is currently the head coach at Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois. (Photo: Wheaton College)

5PM: You’re a highly-decorated athlete who is a coach. But there is a saying that not all excellent wrestlers make excellent coaches, and part of that I’d imagine is communication. Even though coaching is always seen as a natural next-step for a wrestler, did it take you awhile to kind of find a voice, a place where you could get through to your athletes and relate to them?

JG: No, I felt like it fit me like a glove. I’ve always been one to encourage people to make them better. And what it comes down to when being a coach, is that you’re trying to make people better versions of themselves. I like to define people by their character: who they are physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. My job is to make them better in all areas of their lives. I can’t focus on one thing. You can’t compartmentalize your character. You can’t compartmentalize who you are. You’ve seen guys jacked out of their minds. They’re huge, they’re awesome, they look like a Greek god in a singlet; but when they get into emotionally difficult situations they crumble because they can’t handle the pressure. Or they are as dumb as a box of rocks and dumb wrestlers get beat. I’m not saying you have to be a straight-A student, but you still have to have a wrestling intelligence. So even for me, when I was in high school and had a high school coach, I would take the time and explain things to people. I always felt like my lot in life was to make the people around me better.

It seemed natural to me. Now, I taught high school math for 12 years. When I finally really put on the coaching shoes it was easy because when you teach high school math, if you don’t do it the right way you lose your kids. You have to break things down. Being a high school math teacher really helped me become a much better coach because it helped me break things down and not assume that people know what I’m talking about, or assume that people know a position. And that is a hard thing for really good wrestlers to do. They can’t coach their way out of wet paper bag because first of all, they’re not looking at it. They may be able to come in, do a clinic, and show some technique, but they don’t know how to coach. They can just come in and show a technique they might be really good at, but there is a difference between coming in and showing a little bit of technique and being a coach. You have got to be able to have the mindset of, I’m here to make these guys better versions of themselves. Part of that is the technique and you have to break it down for them in a way they can understand it.

Being a high school math teach really helped with that. And it was my high school principal, Carl Adams, not the wrestling coach, a similar name though. The principal at the high school where I taught ,Hilltop Baptist, he initially told me when I was fresh out of college, “Jim, you work really well with gifted students. Now you have to start looking to work well with the average and below-average students.” And it hit me, He’s right. I’m doing these kids a disservice. I have to be a teacher for everybody. So I learned to break things down.

In my room, there are guys who don’t need as much of my time. The guys who need a lot of my time aren’t the superstars. Those other guys are going to be All-Americans whether you’re there or not. They just need you to run the wet stone over the blade to keep the rust off, to keep them sharp and keep them accountable. The weaker guys are the ones who need the coach. Some of them might have needs that are emotional and I’ve got to be there for them. Or, they are weak intellectually and I need to be there for them. Or it could be physical and you need to fine-tune something. Or, it could be spiritually. They think they can be as immoral as they want and don’t think it will affect their wrestling, but it does.

As a coach, especially at the DIII level, I’m not dealing with too many superstars in the room. But it’s nice because that means everybody, even some of the guys other coaches might not recruit, they are in the room and they’re terrible, but I’m there to help make them better versions of themselves. And because of it, we all get better as a team. That’s kind of the way I’ve looked at coaching. And when I realized different people, whether they’d be principals or coaches, I’m trying to take advantage of all of their mentorship and kind of get rid of what I think didn’t work, and keep all of the things they did that did work, and it made me a better coach because of it.

5PM: Does folkstyle hurt Greco-Roman? Please explain where you are on all of this because there are people who believe the country would be in a better place if folkstyle went away. Your success as a Greco athlete and experience as the head coach of a college folkstyle program puts you in a uniquely qualified position to answer this I would reckon. 

Jim Gruenwald: Okay, so let me start with a premise that every country in the world has their own folkstyle wrestling. You go over to Turkey, they’ve got something that goes back thousands of years. Mongolians have a folkstyle type of wrestling. There is folkstyle wrestling everywhere. The US is the only country that is stubborn enough to elevate their folkstyle wrestling above the international styles and then will have the audacity to complain about why we don’t have the success that we should have at the World and Olympic level in both freestyle and Greco.

Now you want me to talk more specifically about Greco, so I will say this: folkstylers will get more from learning Greco than Greco guys will get from learning folkstyle. With that being said, I think there are some things about folkstyle that will make you better. Each one — folkstyle, freestyle, Greco — if you really want to be a complete wrestler, you need to dabble a little bit in each, but then focus on one. John Peterson said very definitely, the difference between his silver medal in 1972 and his gold medal in 1976 was that he spent a lot of time with the Greco guys to help make his double (leg) better. And he walked through his second Olympics. He smashed people, and he points to his Greco training. So I think freestylers need to do a little bit more Greco. I think both styles would be served greatly by learning some hand-fighting positions. Freestylers would do really well to learn some Greco-Roman hand-fighting skills and adapt them to their style of wrestling.

But it’s our infatuation with folkstyle wrestling, and this is coming from a folkstyle coach. You know, I’ve done it. I did it as a high schooler, I did it as a college guy. I wrestled in the Midlands, I placed in the Midlands top-8 five years in a row. So I know folkstyle, I get it. The last couple of years I was there only DI national champs beat me. I loved my folkstyle career, but with that being said, you know what? We need to be training freestyle and Greco in high school and in college. If, if we want to be as dominant in the world as we can be, that’s the way it’s got to be. And if we don’t do that, we’ll never be as dominant as we could be because we will always be a step behind.

Ivan Ivanov would tell people that I didn’t really start wrestling Greco, given the timeline of when I got to the USOEC, because I dabbled in it, I took second at the Junior Nationals, third at the Junior Nationals. It was Iowa then, but now it’s Fargo. But you know, what if I had been training in Greco full-time? Look at Dennis Hall. He finished high school, he spent a little time at Madison (University of Wisconsin) and then he jumped into it. But he was always a Greco guy. I remember Dennis. We grew up together in Wisconsin, I remember him. He was a Greco monster, even when he was wrestling folkstyle, he was wrestling Greco. He was a Greco guy through and through. I went to Maranatha, so I ended up taking my folkstyle career five years longer, but that’s most of our guys.

Though with that being said, folkstyle makes for a tougher wrestler. That college grind? It makes you tough. But in the end, you’re asking guys, if you want to look at Greco Roman wrestling as being a six-foot hole, you’re asking to dig it with a spoon rather than a backhoe. That’s it. We’re trying to do the same job everyone else in the world is doing, but we’re not doing it with the right tools. We don’t start early enough. And that is what folkstyle does, it gets in the way of our international success. So if our country wants to keep doing the same old-same old, we’re going to keep getting the same old-same old results. But if we want to get better in Greco, then we have to have kids at the grassroots level say, I’m not going to do the folkstyle thing, I’m going to be a Greco guy.

I was just talking to Kerry Regner, one of the guys I coached at the USOEC, because he is starting that Greco program up at Williams Baptist College. He’s got a kid he is talking to who didn’t even win a Tennessee state title, but he was a Fargo national champ. It’s Tennessee wrestling, it’s not like people are banging down their doors. It’s not like they are a Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or California state champ. So this kid wrestled in Tennessee, which we know isn’t the same level as one of those other states and he can’t even win his own state tournament. But in Greco, he is a National champ. That kid, right there, is a perfect example of someone who needs to say goodbye to folkstyle and embrace Greco-Roman wrestling. That is why the program at the USOEC was so successful, and yet, these people called it a developmental program even though out of 30 guys, 25 of them qualified for the Senior World and Olympic Trials. And then it was guys like Harry Lester, Spenser Mango, and Adam Wheeler who were making the World and Olympic Teams. I think Ivan and I took it beyond being a developmental program. It still was one, but it was also one of the premier training sites in the country. People knew where the best wrestling was. It was there.

5PM: You mention Dennis Hall. What was it like having to chase after him for years and also, was it important for you to have him as your rival, someone to go after?

Jim Gruenwald: Yes, 100%, it was awesome wrestling Dennis Hall because it was always a fierce battle. There was never any quarter asked and none given. It elevated my wrestling. Here I am, people thought I was crazy just to go down and wrestle him when I started off at 62 kilos and I made the decision to go down to 58 kilos. People were like, Why are you doing that? For me, in my mind, if I could beat Dennis Hall, it would automatically help me become a World and Olympic medalist. Obviously, it didn’t work out in the timeline I wanted. I first cut down in 1997. But Dennis and I competed all the way back even in high school. We wrestled each other in the 1988 Wisconsin state finals and then we wrestled each other at the Junior National tournament, which is now called Fargo. We had 109 guys in our weight class, we were cross-bracketed, and we won our cross brackets and made the finals. So here I was thinking I’d get redemption after losing to him in the state finals 3-2, and I was going to get him in the Greco finals. He crushed me. He was beating me 8 or 9-0 before he stuck me. It was embarrassing.

So when I came back and made the cut down, people said I was crazy. I was like, Why? An opportunity to go against one of the best Greco-Roman wrestlers, not just in the country but in the World right now? This is going to do nothing but make me a better wrestler. So I went into it fully knowing what I was getting into. I enjoyed the battle. It’s something where you thrive on the intensity and it was everything you ever wanted in an epic battle. And it was. It lasted from 1988 and we competed against each other until 2003 and then Dennis went down in 2004. We battled each other. It would be at the Sunkist finals, the World and Olympic Trials, sometimes it was in the finals of the Trials, or in 2002 when (Glenn) Nieradka beat both of us. It was in the mini tournament and I beat him in the mini tournament and then I beat Nieradka in the best of two out of three.

It was awesome. I loved it. Looking back now, if I had the chance, I’d do it all over again.

5PM: Is a rival vital for success? For you it was Dennis Hall, but is it critical to have someone either right in front of you or right in back pushing you in order to be successful at the international level?

JG: Yeah, absolutely. 100%. You look at some guys, like (Jim) Martinez had to battle against Andy Seras. You look at Mike Houck, he had Steve Fraser. You look at some of the best battles in Greco and I’m sure the same thing can be said of freestyle. You look at (Terry) Brands and Kendall Cross, just how Kendall was creeping up on him. Not to say that Kendall was the only one. It might not be 100% essential because you have some people who are superstars. But I think for most people, you need someone who is knocking at your door or you need to be chasing someone. For me, when I was chasing Dennis, obviously the target was on him, it was on his back. But then when I became the #1 guy, the target was on my back. In my mind though, I put it on my chest and said, Let’s do this, because I knew exactly what it was like to chase someone and I also wanted to continue to elevate my wrestling.

Honestly, when I was at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, four of the five top guys were in the room training with me. It elevated me because I could piss and moan that they were studying my stuff, or I could say, You know what? I just have to get so good that they know they could never beat me. I just had to keep developing and bringing new things to the table so they couldn’t figure it out quickly enough.

So back to your original question, I think for most people, most athletes, if you want to elevate yourself, if you want to get that constant toe to toe… Let me preface it with this: in every room, if you want a complete training environment, you need someone you could donkey-stomp. You also need someone you’re going to go toe-to-toe with and don’t know who is going to win. And you need someone who can kick your butt. You have to have that in your room, you have to experience it every week. Maybe some weeks you go heavier where you beat people up. Maybe other weeks you go heavier and you go toe-to-toe. And then other weeks where you go heavier where you get the crap kicked out of you. Right?

And so with that being said, having the training environment that I did and having somebody like Hall? I think every single American who has ever done anything in the Worlds, it wasn’t that he walked through the Worlds or the Olympics, it was that they scratched and clawed their way to the top. And because of that, because of the culture of US wrestling with it being folkstyle and freestyle dominant, I think it becomes all the more important for our Greco guys to have someone stare them down. It doesn’t have to be evil or violent. Dennis knew I was coming after him and I knew he was coming after me. But we still respected each other. We didn’t stab each other in the back, but we were fighting tooth and nail. The same thing with Nieradka, he was part of it. Joe Warren was a part of that. For a time, Lindsey Durlacher was at the same weight class and he was part of that. Jacob Hey from the Air Force was a part of that. He was one of those guys who was always in the top six and was always training with me and elevating me to be a better wrestler.

But the ultimate was knowing there was that rivalry with Dennis Hall. I’m telling you right now that I thank God, and I’m not saying this lightly or in vain, I thank God for Dennis Hall because he made me a better wrestler.

5PM: What is it about Wisconsin having such a tradition of successful Greco-Roman athletes? Minnesota of course has its own rich history, but Wisconsin has seemingly always put out Olympians. What is it that sets Wisconsin apart from other states?

JG: That’s a good question. I think it was our grassroots. There is a coach we had, Keith Swett, he was a Greco guy. He loved it. Dennis and I came out of it, Keith Sieracki came out of it, Garrett Lowney came out of it. In 2004, four of the guys who won the Olympic Trials were Wisconsin guys and I think it was the program. For Coach Swett, it wasn’t an afterthought, it was a forethought, it was what he wanted to do. Even years later I have talked to him and thanked him for the value he put in Greco. Now, I think it has changed a little bit. Wisconsin is still a decent Greco state, there is Minnesota, and I think Illinois is starting to become a mecca…

5PM: Yeah, Illinois for sure, especially the younger guys. 

JG: With what they have done over the last ten years? Anyone who is involved with USA Wrestling and if they are not recruiting Greco guys from Illinois? They’re dropping the ball because this place is a hotbed for Greco.

So yeah, I think a large part of it had to do with Coach Swett recognizing a bunch of guys who could have gone into different directions with their wrestling careers, but saw that we had a natural penchant towards Greco and he encouraged it. And I think because of that, we had some tremendous success. Dennis I think being the most obvious example because he was a three-time World and Olympic medalist.

Jim Gruenwald

Following his career, Gruenwald became an assistant coach under Ivan Ivanov at the Northern Michigan/USOEC program. (Photo: USA Wrestling)

5PM: Forget rulesets, take those out of the equation, but when you compare eras of Greco wrestlers in this country since you’ve been around, do you see a difference in the type of athlete who gravitates towards Greco now as opposed to 20, 30 years ago? Or do you think it’s the same type of guys the Greco program seems to attract?

JG: Maybe I’m wrong here, so let me see if I am picking up what you’re saying. For a while, Greco was just the freestyle guys who couldn’t make the Team. So there would be the #2 or #3 or #4 freestyle wrestlers and they fell into Greco because it was the only way they were going to make the World or Olympic Team. I think that was true for some years and I think it’s still kind of mostly true. But, I know from the time that Mike Houck started up the residence program at the OTC and then Fraser piggy-backed on that and built up the USOEC, I think it changed the dynamic a little bit. Not completely, but it definitely changed. Because you had guys now who were Greco guys. In high school, I was a Greco guy wrestling folkstyle. I threw people in high school, I threw people in college, I loved the headlock. And if I wasn’t doing that, I was at least hand-fighting inside to set up a nice fireman’s carry or a good blast double, or whatever it happened to be.

I think especially when you had that first decade of the residents program at the Olympic Training Center, you had guys who were Greco-bent. They weren’t the freestyle wannabes, they were guys who were Greco guys. Guys like Matt Lindland, Rulon Gardner, Brandon Paulson, although he didn’t train there, guys like Dennis Hall, he was kind of at the beginning part of it. Brad Vering is another one who comes to mind. Kevin Bracken, Ethan Bosch, Chris Saba, Kevin Vogel… Guys, who yeah, we wrestled in college, but if you watched the way we wrestled, you could see we were Greco guys who were kind of forced into the folkstyle culture.

And not to say it is bad, because folkstyle can make a guy a better wrestler, but when we finished we had a longing to go on. And when Houck started that residency program, it satisfied a need both on an individual level and also on a wrestling cultural level. There was a lack and so Mike Houck pioneering and getting us a spot at the Olympic Training Center, it elevated and started something that eventually ended up with Fraser coaching in that 2007 World Championships. Which was something they told us we would never be able to do, and yet on two separate occasions we placed third in the World and then finally sealed the deal in 2007.

So I think it has gone backwards a little bit. The Olympic Training Center, the room isn’t as strong as it used to be. The USOEC, maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m being subjective, but I thought it was better under Ivan and I. It’s nothing against Rob Hermann as a coach. It’s not, but the results that we had, we had guys making World and Olympic Teams and it was only supposed to be developmental. We were going above and beyond developing athletes, we were putting guys on Teams. Spenser Mango and Harry Lester are probably two of the best examples. Andy Bisek came out of that program. So you had one generation that was a really strong OTC program and then the next one came out of the USOEC. One was Mike Houck’s baby and the other was Steve Fraser’s baby. Both are effective and both are part of the puzzle, the tapestry that we need to develop to be strong in Greco overall. Getting kids into Greco out of high school or developing them while they are still in high school, and then grabbing college guys like myself, Ethan Bosch, Kevin Bracken, whoever it happens to be, and getting them to elevate themselves because they’re not just in it for a year or two. I mean, I was at the OTC for 12 years and then another four years as an athlete-coach.

5PM: You’ve probably been asked this before, but if the USOEC program was around when you were college-aged, would you have attended?

JG: Oooh, that’s a good question. You know, I think I probably would have been pulled in that direction had I been recruited for it. But the other thing is too, and we talked about the faith element in this, and that is my mom really encouraged me to go to a Christian college. Now with that being said, for someone like me who is a strongly faithful individual with a coach up there, I think it would have made it more attractive. Because I understood growing up with the family situation that I did, my parents split when I was six and my dad was an alcoholic. He’s been dry for 17 years now, but as a young man I realized I needed an environment that was going to be very disciplined, and Maranatha and Ben Peterson both definitely provided that for me.

So that’s a good question. There is definitely a part of me that I think may have done it, and the other part of me from a faith and discipline standpoint would have needed someone like me when I was coaching at the USOEC who set very clear limits. Like Ben did for me at Maranatha, I did it up there. Ben obviously did it underneath the umbrella of Christianity. When I was at the USOEC, I did it with morality and talking about the things you needed to do to maximize their abilities and making the right choices.

I guess it really depends on who the coaching staff was. Because I’ll say it would have been a strong maybe, if not more than a strong maybe just because I saw the benefits of Dennis Hall not going the college route and going right into Greco and how it helped him. I might have been a threat even sooner. Then again, maybe it was my time under Ben Peterson, who even though it was in freestyle, was a World and Olympic medalist. Who knows? It’s not easy. That is interesting. It’s not an easy question for me to answer because I know my weaknesses and I really appreciated my time at Maranatha with Ben because he taught me so much of what it was not just being a moral man, but being a Christian man. He helped me just because of what I pictured what was tough and the example that he gave me was so fundamentally important to who I became. So yeah, good question, I don’t know if I have a definite answer for you.

5PM: Obviously you’re committed to Wheaton, but would you potentially be interested in coaching Greco again, be it after a folkstyle season during the summer or another situation like that?

Jim Gruenwald. Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, honestly, I spent 12 years competing and being a part of the Olympic Training Center and then another four years coaching it. I’ve been wrestling Greco since high school. There’s a guy on my team right now, Dan Olsen, who was on the University World Team a few years ago. He’s huge, he’s a monster, but I’m in there everyday banging with him trying to get him ready for the National tournament. I don’t think I’m doing a great job because I’m not big enough, but I still have enough in my tank to be able to challenge him a little bit and we have some other people who can push him around. But yeah, Greco has always been in my heart and there is always a temptation to leave where I am and pursue something that was such a significant part of my life. It’s just the pull to do that, I don’t want to say isn’t strong enough, but it doesn’t seem right right now.

I can’t explain it, but it feels like I am supposed to be at Wheaton to do something and I haven’t finished doing it yet. And when I did put my hat out there for the National Team coaching position, which obviously Matt Lindland eventually got, USA Wrestling chose him. So to me, it was an answer that I still needed to be at Wheaton for awhile. I don’t know the future, I don’t have a crystal ball, but my guess is that at some point in my life I do end up circling back to Greco just because I love it. I love Greco. It’s awesome and our country needs to do better at it. And how I fit in with USA Wrestling and the Greco USA world, I don’t have an answer for that right now. But I still dabble in it. How could I not?

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