After breaking meth’s hold, wrestler Richard Jensen, at 37, is a likely No. 2 see in the NJCAA Region 18 Championships Saturday
by Jim Beseda
As the referee lifted his hand in victory, Richard Jensen which body parts hurt – and how much.
When the ref finished, Jensen trotted to one side of the wrestling mat to shake hands with the opposing coach, then trudged back toward the Clackamas Community College bench in search of Kevin Arizo, the Cougars’ trainer.
“Kevin, where’s an ice pack?” asked Jensen, touching the knot rising from his chin.
Jensen found the ice pack in the red plastic cooler behind the bench and then sat on the floor. As he gently iced his chin, a fan in the stands to his left hollered.
“Keep livin’ the dream, Richard!”
Jensen, a 37-year-old sophomore, looked up and smiled.
Under the best of circumstances, the human body isn’t intended to absorb the blows of competitive wrestling at age 37. And Jensen has abused his body more than most people. He’s a former methamphetamine addict and ex-convict who last year returned to the mat after a 17-year layoff.
Jensen’s first season with the Cougars was spent working his way into decent shape, tapping athletic skills he hadn’t used since his days at Tigard High School, and enduring his share of lumps.
This season, he has dished out more lumps than he’s taken – and emerged as the likely No. 2 seed at 184 pounds for Saturday’s NJCAA Regional 18 championships at Clackamas’ Randall Hall. The top three placers in each weight class advance to the Feb. 22-: National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division I championships in Rochester, Minn.
“This is it,” Jensen said. “It’s all right here. I’ve had my eye on something for a long time now, and here it’s becoming reality.”
Cougars coach Josh Rhoden shakes his head when he thinks about how far Jensen has come in the last year and a half.
He remembers the start of training camp last season when Jensen, then a 36-year-old freshman, showed up for the first practice on the school’s track without any running shoes and ran three miles in his bare feet.
At season’s end, the Cougars not only named Jensen the team’s most inspirational wrestler, but also renamed the trophy the Richard Jensen Most Inspirational Wrestler Award.
“The kid has more heart than anybody in the gym,” said Rhoden, who is nine years younger than Jensen. “He trained all summer, lost weight, moved down a weight class for us, and got himself in really, really competitive form coming into this season.
“Most kids, summer was good to them, they come in kind of lazy and they’ve got to work their way into shape. Heck, Richard came in ready to roll right away and set the tone for the season.”
“Can I do it?”
When he arrived at Clackamas Community College, Jensen was three years removed from the state penitentiary where he served a 13-month sentence for repeated drug-related offenses. He enrolled in the school’s automotive program, intent on earning his stripes as a certified technician.
Going out for the Cougars’ wrestling team was more personal- an effort to reconnect with a team sport that had been a source of joy and stability in his life before drugs and alcohol took over.
“When I took a left instead of a right, wrestling became a part of my past and forgotten about,” Jensen said. “Off and on through the years, I’d get little reminders or have moments when I’d think back to the good times I had wrestling.
“Last year, it was about just finding out what I could do. Can I do it? Or am I too old, worn out and done? I didn’t know. I really didn’t.”
Jim Jackson, the Clackamas Community College athletic director, said this isn’t the first time a student over the age of 35 has competed for the Cougars. Juanita Curry was a 40-year-old grandmother when she ran cross country and track. Andria Scheese was a 40-year-old mother of three when she ran cross country and track. There also was a 45-year-old with a master’s degree (Jackson couldn’t remember his name) who threw the discus on the men’s track team in 1990.
“It’s one thing if you’re running,” Jackson said. “But when you look at a sport like wrestling’ that is just so physical and so demanding on your body, there generally aren’t many older guys who attempt comebacks. And as Richard will tell you himself, he abused the hell out of his body a long time before he came here.
“Having Richard here has been kind of cathartic for everybody around him to see that you can have been in a bad place and you can get well again.” Jackson, who coached the Cougars’ wrestling team before becoming the school’s athletic director, has been impressed with the progress Jensen has made in two seasons.
“With the work he’s done this year, I think he’s twice as good as he was last year,” Jackson said. “I think he has a real viable shot to not only go to the national tournament out of our region, which is tough, but I think he could possibly place at the national tournament, too. We’ll see.”
Jackson said Jensen’s criminal background was never an issue. In fact, he said, Jensen isn’t the first athlete to arrive at Clackamas via the state pen.
“If community colleges can’t try to help people get themselves and their lives back together through sports and everything else, what opportunity does a person have?” Jackson said. “I mean, there are none. We’ve always looked at ourselves as a second chance type of thing. Not just academically, but athletically, too.”
“Got the body working”
Jensen lost more matches, than he won as a freshman, but he said his win-loss record was immaterial.
He was happy just to make the team.
“Last year was like walking into a dark room with the door closed,” Jensen said. “What’s in there? I didn’t know. I came to find out that all I was doing was knocking the dust off. It turned into one of those years where I just kind of got the body working again. And we pulled through. We made it through and we got to make a go of it this year.”
This season has been a different story. “The thing about him is he is so mentally prepared,” Rhoden said. “I don’t know how else to explain it other than to say he’s just more mature mentally than other guys on the team, and can just push himself to a level that some of these guys can’t see or don’t understand yet.”
Jensen went 4-2 during the dual meet season, and his only losses were to Highline’s Norman Orr and North Idaho’s Stevie Vasquez. Orr suffered a season-ending injury and will not wrestle at Saturday’s tournament. Vasquez is the projected top seed at 184.
“I’ve won some matches, and it just blows me away,” Jensen said. ”I’m actually competing with some of the best junior college wrestlers in the country. Last year, I wrestled some of the best and I learned what that was like. This year, I actually got to beat a few of them.
“I thought that just winning a few matches would make my whole year. And now, here I am, they want to seed me second in the region? They want to seed me, dude? C’mon. I could cry right now.”
In pushing himself this season, Jensen’s intensity and mental toughness have permeated the wrestling room.
“When we see him working hard, it makes us work harder, too,” sophomore heavyweight John Bates said. “You can’t let a 37-year-old man outwork you, but half the time he does. He’ll beat on you, you know?
“Physically, he’s 37, you know, but still … he’s so determined. It’s great motivation for our team, because when we think we’re sore, we just look at him. You know every time he yells, he’s in pain, dude. But for him to overcome that and keep moving on, he inspires all of us.”
Using his “gift”
Jensen’s inspiration extends beyond the wrestling room, resonating with many in Portland’s recovery community. He hasn’t had a drink or used drugs in more than four years, and his story gives hope not only to others trying to overcome an addiction, but also to those looking to maintain their sobriety.
“Richard has a gift, and now that he’s clean, he gets to use it,” said a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who identifies himself as Dan P. and is Jensen’s sponsor. “If he hadn’t turned his life around, I don’t think we’d see this side of him. I mean, he’s taken a dream and run with it.
“He’s put himself out there for people in recovery, he’s done a lot of service work, and I’ve seen how he encourages others, especially those in early recovery. He’s been real busy, but he’s never too busy to do his recovery. That comes first, because without that, I think he realizes that none of this would have happened.”
Jensen sat out last weekend’s Boxer Open at Pacific University in Forest Grove to conserve some energy and let his body mend heading into Saturday’s regional championships.
“I’ve got bumps and bruises,” Jensen said. “I’ve got to live in an ice bath, and there are guys who wouldn’t want to go through the daily regimen I do, let alone get on the mat. But I do it, and that’s what keeps my body being able to do this, to a point.
“The other part is just being able to block out the pain. What I say to myself is, ‘OK, you are not going to break me.’ It took me 17 years to get here, and it was a long journey. And here I am. You’re not going to break me.”
Photographs by Steven Nehl / The Oregonian