With the 2016 Olympics just around the corner, we’ll soon be reintroduced to some of the stranger sports in the world. But forget about water polo, kitesurfing and handball, one of the strangest of them all is wrestling. Something about the extreme physical nature of the sport attracts a certain type of person. Ruthlessly self-disciplined, with a shockingly high pain threshold, wrestlers are the toughest of the lot. Little surprise that so many of them end up as Marines or MMA fighters.
Even by the standards of the average wrestler, Dan Russell was extreme. For years he trained six hours a day, six days a week, endured brutal diets, horrendous injuries and constant internal battles, all in pursuit of a single dream: to compete in the Olympic Games.
He was well on course, remaining undefeated his entire high school career. Sportswear giant Nike even sponsored him, running an advert that showed Dan flipping an opponent overhead, with the words ‘Wimps Need Not Apply’.
A broken back put him out of contention for the1992 Games in Barcelona, but a couple of broken vertebrae is no barrier to true wrestlers, and Dan trained his way back to the peak of physical fitness. As the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta approached, his plan appeared to be working out perfectly, especially when, in 1995, a hard-fought series of victories in a famous Russian tournament brought him the title Unofficial World Champion.
Yet, just eight weeks away from Atlanta 1996, a foul throw by a once-trusted friend left him severely concussed and ended Dan’s career in an instant. Decades of hard work, sacrifice and pain were undone. Everything was lost.
Not quite everything. While Dan had developed a clear and precise idea of how he was going to serve God—hoping that by winning an Olympic medal he would then begin a career as an evangelist—the Lord had other plans.
It was on a visit to a maximum security prison in a Muslim nation within the former Soviet Union that Dan finally began to see those plans for himself. Dan was with a team of fellow Christian wrestlers, and after giving a brief demonstration, Dan preached.
“Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” The shouts came from one of the inmates. He approached Dan and through a translator explained that he had he had been imprisoned for being a pastor and that he was the only Christian among the inmates. He had been asking God to send someone to encourage him, and saw Dan’s visit as a wonderful answer to prayer. He had just one request: that Dan try and get him a Bible.
Dan was amazed. He knew that if he had been imprisoned for his faith he would be pleading with any Christian visitors to get him out. The pastor just wanted a Bible so that he could learn more about God while he was in prison. Dan was reminded of how much his faith had been shaken over the years and how he had been struggling with not making the Olympic team, yet in front of him was a man who had lost everything—freedom, family, all comforts—and who was determined to give all that he could to serve God.
Almost two decades have passed since then, and those plans that God had for him have become clear. Dan has coached Olympians and high school wrestling teams alike, he has become a church leader, speaker and all round evangelist. Whether at work within the wrestling community or in churches across the US, Dan is honest, vulnerable and is a passionate advocate of Jesus. And perhaps most significantly of all, he shares an infectious joy that comes from serving God with a generous heart, wherever we find ourselves.