By Jim Beseda
On a sunny, late September day last fall, first-year Clackamas Community College wrestling coach Josh Rhoden gathered his athletes on the school’s track and announced they were about to run four miles.
It would be a test of who was in shape and a test of desire, especially because -as he made clear -the first week of running-dominated workouts might seem more suited for marathoners than wrestlers.
As the students stretched and got ready to run, Rhoden noticed that one of them -Richard Jensen -wasn’t wearing running shoes, only a beat-up pair of wrestling shoes bought at a secondhand store. “Get your running shoes and come back tomorrow,” Rhoden said. “Oh no, I don’t want to miss any time with the team,” Jensen said. “It’s important to me.”
So, Jensen ran the four miles barefoot.
At the time, Rhoden and assistant coach Ryan Stonemetz were just starting to learn that Jensen hadn’t wrestled since the 1980s, and that he was a 36-year-old college freshman who was twice as old as most of the other wrestlers.
hey were beginning to hear bits and pieces about how he had spent 15 years addicted to drugs and shuttling in and out of jail and recovery programs.
They were finding out that Jensen had spent a year at Portland Community College and took courses in math, English and writing to prove he could succeed in the classroom before transferring to Clackamas.
And, as Jensen stood there without shoes, they were staring to see just how serious he was about wrestling. Still, they weren’t sure what to make of him
“Yeah, he looked a little bit older, and everybody was like, ‘Is this guy wrestling?'” said Seth Roy, the Cougar’s 157 pound sophomore from Sherwood. “I saw he had cauliflower ears and thought he might be helping out with the coaching.”
Stonemetz said he didn’t think Jensen would last more than a week. Even after a few weeks of practice, nobody was certain if he could stick with the program.
When the time came for the team members to turn in the paperwork that would allow them to wrestle official intercollegiate matches, Jensen asked Stonemetz, “Should I get ready to certify?”
Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” Stonemetz said. “That’s for the guys who are competing.” “Well you know what?” Jensen said, “We need to keep that option open.”
Jensen had been a serious wrestler when he was younger – and clean – but he hadn’t competed in the sport since 1989, his senior year at Tigard High. Then, he and teammates Joe Schmidt, Jeff Douglass and brothers Dave and Glenn Nieradka qualified for the Oregon Class 3A championships.
Jensen, who has been clean since 2003, said he thought wrestling might help keep his life in balance. “All these years that I was away from the sport and involved in other stuff at the other end of the spectrum, I had dreams of being a part of a team again,” Jensen said. “That team that I knew as a kid. Life was good back then.”
Jensen entered his first dual meet on Dec. 14 against North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. Rhoden made him an honorary captain.
The blind draw before the match gave the teams an unusual starting point – the 174 pound class – which seemed to work in favor of North Idaho. The Cardinals scored a pin at 174 and a forfeit at 184 to take a 12-0 lead.
Then Jensen took the mat against North Idaho’s Kyle Sand, who was ranked No. 4 by the National Junior College Athletic Association at 197 pounds. “We thought we were in trouble in that match,” Rhoden said.
Jensen hasn’t wrestled a match in 17 years. He still was nursing an injured right knee that had delayed his Cougars debut by more than a month. Nobody was sure what to expect.
But Jensen wasn’t nervous. Quite the opposite, he was bursting with pride.
“There was just so much happiness and gratitude and just excitement inside that, ‘I’m here! I’m here! I get to do this!” he said.
Jensen surrendered the first takedown and wrestled from behind the entire match, losing by four points. After the match, he cried.
“It wasn’t that I’d lost 10-6” Jensen said. “It was because I won that match. I made it through. And it was just amazing that I was there. So I bawled and just broke down emotionally, because it felt so good to do it.”
Jensen’s performance helped inspire some of his teammates. First, heavyweight John Bates won 14-8, and then Brian Jacob won 9-6 at 125, Nic Lockwood won by forfeit at 133, Sam Schmitz won 6-4 at 149, Roy won 9-4 at 157 and Alex Bubb won 10-4 at 165 giving the Cougars a 22-21 victory.
“If we lose by more than a decision at 197, there’s no chance,” Rhoden said, “But Richard did it, and it changed the whole complexion of the dual.”
Because Jensen is 36 – 10 years older than his coach and because of the choices he made when he was the age of his teammates, he relates to them on a different level. He has shared bits of his story during practice and on the team bus, telling the other wrestlers things that he hopes will help them make better decisions in their lives.
Having him around has made Rhoden’s job easier.
“Richard’s story hit these guys real hard,” Rhoden said. “I can talk about my experiences, and it goes in one ear and out the other. But when somebody like Richard comes up and relates to them and says, ‘I’ve been in that bad place, and here I’m back to tell you about it,’ it maybe drives the point home.”
“Maybe somebody has a beer after the season is over, but they don’t get behind the wheel because they remember what Richard said.”
Roy, the Cougar’s 157 pounder, said: “What he’s done, not a lot of people can do. In my life, I’ve wished some people in my family could do the right thing. Rich gives me hope that it can happen.”
Jensen’s long-term goal is to open his own automotive repair shop and call it the Affordable Car Doctor. He has already registered the name in Salem as a small business, but he needs the Automotive Service Excellence certificate before that dream can become a reality.
Usually it takes a full-time student about two years to get certified. Jensen, who attends school part-time, figures it may take him three to three and a half years.
“I’m taking the slow route,” he said. “Less stress.”
Jensen holds fast to the idea that he got to this point slowly, staying clean for one day, then the next. “And then it was like, OK, I can do this again.'”
He doesn’t know how any of this is going to play out, and that’s OK with him. He figures if he just does ‘the next right thing,” which is what has tried to do the past three years, there’s a good change things will work out just fine.
It worked with wrestling.
Jensen’s season ended quietly 12 days ago when he lost a one-point decision to teammate Jim Halicki to determine which one of them would represent the Cougars at the Northwest Athletic Associate of Community Colleges regional tournament in Yakima.
Long before the wrestle-off, however, Jensen became an inspiration to his teammates and, he hopes, to others who struggle with addiction. He wants people to know that they can stay clean and do whatever they puts their minds to, and that there are people who get clean and turn around their lives.
“I just wanted one more time,” he said. “And the truth of it is, to be honest, if I had worked out and trained with these guys, and said I didn’t get a match, I probably would have been OK with that, because this experience has gone so far beyond what I ever imagined.”
At the Portland State Open on Jan 7, Jensen was more or less soaked from head to toe in analgesic balm. He kept a heating pad on his back until about 10 minutes before his first match. Later, he would soak for 20 minutes in a 50-degree ice bath.
In his match with Pacific University’s Josh Monge, Jensen got a one-point escape as time expired in the first round to take a 6-5 lead. He executed a two-point reversal with just under a minute left in the first round that helped seal a 9-5 division – and his first collegiate win.
“Oh, my God!” Jensen exclaimed. “That was so awesome!”
He was still gasping for breath moments later.
“It’s a pretty good rush,” he said. “Better than any rush I’ve ever had.”
Margie Gultry of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.
Photographs by Bruce Ely / The Oregonian