A year before the Atlanta Games, the city was host to the World Team Trials. It was a chance for the organizers to make sure that the Games themselves were going to run well, and for those of us competing it was an opportunity to take our preparations to a whole new level.
Walking into the trials I had earned the number 1 rank. My eyes were fixed on the year ahead. One year from this tournament I envisioned myself at the top of the Olympic podium. I would face Gordy Morgan, the guy I’d been wrestling when I’d broken my back in the trials for the Barcelona 1992 Games. When we met in Atlanta he was wrestling well and got himself in a position where he could throw me: both my arms trapped to my sides and my whole body lifted off the mat. To stop it I knew I had to make myself as long and awkwardly shaped as possible, so I posted, stretching my neck out as far forward and my legs as far back as I could. It worked a little, but Gordy still managed to get the throw in.
Being thrown is a fearful experience. It’s the reason why you do a lot of tumbling while you are training, so you can learn how to fall correctly and reduce the risk of serious head and neck trauma. But injuries happen. They’re all part of the deal. As my body sailed up and over Gordy’s chest, I could feel my gravity taking a hold on me, my feet lifting high and my head coming down fast toward the mat.
After that, my memory is blank. Amnesia was the result of the head injury. For a week, I had lost the past six years of my life’s memories. 1995 had been a year for my baby book. Being named the number one wrestler in the United States and then crowned the “Unofficial Champion of the World” in Perm Russia set the mission deeper. 1995 could have been called the great ascent. But what goes up must come down. Little did I know that the climax of my career had been reached one year too soon? The rapid descent began it’s heartbreaking spiral in Atlanta. This Olympic city engrained a memory the great deterioration to my career. The dream had been in my sights for the past 21 years through 4-6 hour training six days a week.
1996 confronted me with a long struggle through the Epstein Barr Virus leaving me perpetually tired, broken ribs four weeks before the final trials.
These were difficult hurdles to overcome but it was the fateful family tradition that would be a statistic to strange coincidences. My dad’s career had ended with a traumatic brain injury that had put him into a coma in college. My brother’s wrestling career ended with a near life ending brain trauma and my career too would eventually end with a third concussion. Was this just dumb luck, or a strange statistical anomaly or a prophetic nightmare? How does one reconcile that God works all things for good. What good could come of this crushing blow?
November 2nd in 2015, my mother would reach her 70th year and I would find myself stranded along I-85 South in Atlanta. I was headed to a wrestling clinic in the city where the descent to a hopeful career began. Suddenly, a blowout of the rear passenger side tire, left me stranded by the side of the road. Directly across from me on the other side of I-85 was the Centennial Olympic Stadium. This 85,000-seat stadium hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games presenting the closing ceremonies to the world. I was painfully reminded, Atlanta, the city where the wheel came off of my wrestling career.
I would call for help. The owner of the vehicle, Ron Domanico arrived. Then the organizer of the clinic, Bill Gifford would arrive shortly after. We tried to remove the tire with the lug wrench unsuccessfully. Two football fields away was a gas station. I carried the wrench to the station hoping they might have a better tool for us to use. As I walked to the station, I was swinging the heavy iron bar into my free hand. Frustrated with how the day had unfolded, processing my luck in this city of Atlanta, and wondering the deeper meaning of it all. I looked up and saw a police car drive by looking intently at me. Their lights flashed and I saw them pull behind our disabled vehicle. It would take me some time to get back from the station unsuccessful with my purposed mission. When I arrived the police officer (Officer Johnson) asked me, “How do you go from being a wrestler to a pastor?”
I was informed that the officer asked Ron when he pulled the police car behind ours if they knew the big-armed guy in the white t-shirt walking with a big tire iron? The officer had seemed concerned. Ron and Bill would ease his alarm. They explained that I had won four college National titles and I was a pastor, and yes I was with them.
Arriving on the scene, pondering officer Johnson’s immediate question, took me a moment to process as I was trying to figure out how he knew I was a pastor and wrestler. My mind had been racing through the irony of being stuck alongside the road beside the stadium. His question hit to the heart of my own inner struggle.
Ron looked over at me and said, “Tell him your story.” I began to share about the loneliest night of my life “winning four national championships and wondering if this was it.” I shared, “Titles, trophies, championships did not seem to be enough. There has to be something more!”
The officer began to shake his head. Officer Johnson confessed that he was in that place in his life right now. “There has to be something more. I am hungry for something more.” He said.
I explained that the night I put my trophies on the shelf and realized that these things did not bring me the result I had longed for that I got down on my face and cried out to God.
On an I-85 onramp in the middle of rush hour traffic, I asked officer Johnson if we could pray with him. He said, “Yes. Please.”
We gathered around him and placed our hands on him and began to pray. Memories of my past disappointment would be inroads to helping another find their way through. In this single moment tragedy would lead to triumph beyond a medal or another trophy that would just collect dust.
In this instant, I am reminded of the greater gold. The broken past had led me to a greater future. God was orchestrating this Divine moment to once again put things into and eternal perspective. Paul said it best in his first letter to the Corinthians, “You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.”
Look for more of Dan’s stories in the book Finish Strong: The Dan Russell Story.
Grateful for the journey!