Everybody knows that wrestlers are a little different. Something about the extreme physical nature of the sport attracts a certain type of person: one with ruthless self-discipline, a shockingly high pain threshold, and the desire to prove himself in a public battle of strength, wearing what amounts to the little more than your Gran’s bathing suit.
Yet the first time I met coach Dan Russell at a Starbucks in Portland, Oregon, it was hard to be intimidated. Something about Russell’s gracious, open manner made me forget that he had once been a fierce competitor, a world champion—one strong enough to break my twiggy arms with his bare hands. But as we talked about God and worship and Russell’s passion for his hometown, it felt as if we were a million miles away from that former life.
When we met again months later—this time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs—it was impossible not to think about Russell’s past. Surrounded by photo shrines to Olympic glory, walking alongside perfect-specimen athletes, and pausing in front of photos of the coaches and wrestlers he had worked with over the years—all of them medalists—Russell’s history came into focus.
By the standards of your average wrestler, Russell was extreme: From his earliest years, he trained four to six hours a day, six days a week, all year long. He endured brutal diets, horrendous injuries, and constant fear and fatigue. For his pre-match routine, he would often wear a rubber suit, woolen hat, gloves, and multiple sets of sweatshirts and sweatpants, and climb onto an exercise bike. In a sauna. And he considered all this perfectly normal. Not only would it help him shed the last 12 pounds required to make his fighting weight, but the extreme levels of pain and self-discipline also helped ready him to compete.
Decades of hard work, sacrifice, and pain undone. Everything lost—just like that.
It worked. Russell was undefeated all through high school. He reigned as state champion four years in a row and followed that by being a four-time NCAA Champion and four-time Academic All-American. He signed a sponsorship deal with Nike, which led to an advertisement that showed Russell flipping an opponent overhead, the words “Wimps Need Not Apply” in bold letters across the bottom. It was no surprise when the wrestling world began to talk about Russell becoming a genuine contender for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But when he suffered a broken back a few months before the games, his lifelong dream had ended before it began.
Remember that bit about Russel being tough? It turned out that a couple of broken vertebrae are no barrier to true wrestlers, and he trained his way back to the peak of physical fitness.
As the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta approached and Dan was crowned unofficial world champion, his plan appeared to be working perfectly. Yet, just eight weeks away from the games, a foul throw by a once-trusted friend left him severely concussed. It was one brain injury too many. And with that, his career was over. Decades of hard work, sacrifice, and pain undone. Everything lost—just like that.
How does someone cope when a life’s worth of labor vanishes in an instant? How does he avoid growing hard and calloused? How does a man who brutalized himself for years—seemingly for nothing—find himself in a place of peace and contentment?
As the two of us sat in Russell’s kitchen in Battle Ground, Washington, two decades after that terminal foul throw, his home spoke of a life filled to the brim. There among the family photos and musical instruments, he told me that, yes, there had been a time after the final concussion when he questioned God. For years, he had held onto a clear and precise idea of how he was going to serve the Lord: Win an Olympic medal and then begin a career as an evangelist, in that order. It was hard to let go of that. But one day when he had prayed for what felt like the thousandth time about how sorry he was for failing, Russell had a clear sense of God’s response: “I don’t need you to win gold medals for Me. I want to do great things in and through you.”
A few months passed, but sure enough, Russell got to see those plans materialize. He was invited to take part in a tour of the former Soviet Union with other Christian wrestlers, and it was on a later visit to a maximum security prison that he was invited to preach. Russell looked out on the crowd of men. They were all thin, all with shaven heads and wearing the same gray tattered uniforms. All sat or stood in the same way, their hands clasped in front of them as if holding something close to their hearts for fear of losing it. Those who did look up stared with pale, hollow-looking eyes.
Russell took a breath and then started to speak. He told them about sin and Jesus and how He had sacrificed Himself so that none would be lost. He told them that everyone could be found, could be rescued, even prisoners here in the middle of nowhere.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” The shouts came from one of the inmates. Emaciated, struggling for breath, he approached. Through a translator, he explained he had been imprisoned for being a pastor and was the only Christian among the inmates. He had been finding life harder than usual lately and had asked God to send someone to encourage him. Russell’s visit was a wonderful answer to prayer. He had just one other request: Could the team get him a Bible?
But one day when he had prayed for what felt like the thousandth time, Russell had a clear sense of God’s response: “I don’t need you to win gold medals for Me. I want to do great things in and through you.”
Working through some local missionaries, the team was able to provide Bibles for every prisoner. For days after, Russell couldn’t stop thinking about what the pastor had told him, and something about that man’s story changed his life forever. “There are times in life when you look back and realize how petty you are,” Russell said. He described crying in the prison, reminded of all the times he’d complained to God for not letting him win a gold medal, when right in front of him was a pastor who had lost his freedom, just for being used by God.
In that moment, Russell realized the only way to reach those other men in the prison was for one man like the prisoner who approached him to be so loyal and faithful to God that he would keep praying, keep believing—even when he was locked up, shaved, malnourished, diseased, and neglected. “That was the kind of faith I wanted to have, not the sort that threw a tantrum just because I missed out on Olympic glory.”
In the years since that day, God’s plans have become clear. Russell has coached Olympians and high school wrestling teams alike, and he has also become a church leader, speaker, and all-round evangelist. Whether at work within the wrestling community or in churches across the U.S., Russell is an honest, vulnerable, and passionate advocate of Jesus.
Finish strong. It’s the phrase that defined Russell as a wrestler, and it’s one he uses often whenever he talks about following Jesus. He uses it to encourage people to think about the day when we will all stand before the Lord.
To whom is victory given? “[To] those who finish strong—who have stayed present, who have given everything, who have not merely hidden from the hard things or continually given in to the temptation to drop out when life has threatened to overwhelm us,” Russell said. Just when we feel that the finish line is finally behind us, we’ll see a whole new journey opening up ahead. In Russell’s words, “We’ll see God’s banner raised above us”—which is all the glory we could ever need.
Photography by Chris Hornbecker