craig borlase writer
articles December 16th, 2016

An Olympic Dream, a Broken Back and a New Purpose – Dan Russell’s story

Everybody knows that the wrestling team are a little different. 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.

But even by the standards of the average wrestler, Dan Russell was extreme. From his earliest years he trained six hours a day, six days a week. He endured brutal diets, horrendous injuries and constant internal battles against fear and fatigue, all in pursuit of a single dream; to compete in the Olympic Games.

When he neared the end of his High School career, he was well on course. Dan was state champion four years in a row and undefeated his entire high school career. 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 the 1992 Games in Barcelona, but a couple of broken vertebrae are 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. Emaciated, struggling for breath and dressed in rags, he approached Dan. Through a translator he 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 finding life harder than usual lately and had asked 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 – but who was still determined to give all that he could to serve God.

Almost two decades have passed since then, and Dan has coached Olympians and high school wrestling teams alike, become a church leader, author and guest speaker. Most significantly he has found the deep joy that comes from serving God with a generous heart, wherever we find ourselves.

 

I worked with Dan throughout 2014 to write his memoir, Finish Strong. He’s a beautiful paradox of a man; strong, competitive and passionate at the same time as being vulnerable, warm and humble.