Overcoming the impossible

Richard Jensen visits a school in New York to share his story and interact with students. Photo contributed by Be a Champion in Life.

By Doug Fry

Richard Jensen may not be a name that you will remember, but once you know his story you will remember it forever.

Jensen grew up in a home with a good family, values and morals. At a young age, he began wrestling and from there it would stick with him for life.

“I was very hyperactive, had a tough time paying attention, very distracted and when I found wrestling, it was like medicine,” said Jensen.

After graduating high school Jensen left to go fishing in Alaska. Troubles came about when the lack of structure, wrestling, left his life. He was exposed to the world, in an environment with drugs and alcoholism. The lifestyle on and o the boats was work hard, play hard.

“It really beat me up fast,” said Jensen. “It took me to that place where things were real foggy. I got just enough on track that I couldn’t quite get back on track and go to college.”

After being caught in the lifestyle, Jensen describes the struggle with addiction as something that evolved and slowly took the life out of him. Addiction took away his dreams, his visions and his aspirations, making everyday life much more difficult.

Over a 15 year period, Jensen found himself in and out of prison and separated from his family. When in jail, Jensen was constantly thinking about wrestling, knowing how it helped him stay on track. After trying treatment over five times, Jensen never found any luck.

In 2003, after being at the lowest point in his life, Jensen found himself in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Shortly after being in prison Jensen learned that his mother had cancer. After a month into his sentence, he heard the news of his mother passing.

“I believe she’s watching me, but if I could sit down and have her for a minute, that would be incredibly awesome,” said Jensen. “I would say I’m sorry for putting her through those nights of worrying and thank her for my upbringing.”

Jensen was released from prison in 2004 and knew that if he could have wrestling in his life again, he would have a chance at sobriety. In 2006, Jensen knew that he wanted to be part of a team again, he found that team at Clackamas Community College.

“I didn’t expect to win a lot of matches,” said Jensen. “The goal wasn’t to get my hand raised. It was to win my life back. It was much bigger than a wrestling match.”

Jensen talked with former athletic director, Jim Jackson, about joining the team and learned how difficult it would be to make the team at age 36. Knowing that this had to be done, Jensen accepted all feats that would follow. In 2006-07, current wrestling coach Josh Rhoden was in his first season as head coach at Clackamas and recalled the first meeting of the season.

“The mood was instantly lightened in our first team meeting when he walked into Randall 101 ahead of me, the 26-year- old ‘new coach,’ and he was asked, ‘Are you the new coach?’ Richard, 10 years my senior, says, ‘No I’m here to try out for wrestling,’” said Rhoden.

Not only is it difficult to make a college wrestling team, but doing it on a Top-10 nationally ranked team and at the age of 36 with limited physical activity for 15 years, it is nearly impossible. In his first season, Jensen struggled to find wins, but after a long offseason he came back in the best shape of his life, winning more matches in the first tournament of his second season than he did all of his first season.

“You get a few windows of opportunity in your life and this was mine,” said Jensen. “I needed to compete on the mat for that full two years. I knew that it would be a life changing experience for me.”

Jensen went on to have a winning season in his second year at CCC and was seeded second in the Regional Tournament. By this time, he was engulfed in the spotlight. All of the local papers, news teams and even ESPN had been following Jensen at this time. He took second place and qualified for nationals.

“As a coach I would say he simply continues to defy the odds in his life,” said Rhoden. “I’d say his regional and National Championship run was remarkable.”

In his first match at nationals, Jensen won by fall. His next two matches did not go as planned, losing both and being eliminated from the tournament. After his final match, Jensen sat in the center of the mat to take in his storybook season.

ESPN’s documentary was aired in 2009 and the impact was felt across the country. Jensen began speaking to kids about the troubles of addiction and sharing his story. “Be a Champion in Life” was born, an organization that Jensen has been able to start up now reaches nearly 30,000 kids a year.

Jensen continued his wrestling career on the national level and has competed with team USA around the world. Jensen is a 5-time All-American and was the Folkstyle National Champion in the Men’s Veteran Division in 2016. Jensen has since decided to take time to reach out and share his story with as many people as he can through his organization

From the outside looking in you may never recognize the pain Jensen has endured. He now owns an automotive repair shop, Affordable Car Doctor, and spends time salmon and steelhead fishing. After 14 years of sobriety, he is able to dedicate his time to be a champion in life and helping others overcome their addictions. Jensen lives the life of a champion.

Doug Fry