First impressions are curious things. Seeing Jim Gruenwald for the first time, the first noticeable things are physical — short, muscular and, until recently, quite the impressive beard. In short, he looks like a wrestler. However, as is typical of first glances, oftentimes there is much more than meets the eye. This undoubtedly applies in the case of Gruenwald, Wheaton’s wrestling head coach. While a first glance might give physical clues about his foray into wrestling, qualities completely missed include his role as a devoted husband, father, world champion wrestler, inspiring coach and follower of Christ.
Interestingly enough, a fight brought Gruenwald into the wrestling world in sixth grade. After getting into a disagreement with a classmate, he punched the student three times in the face. Thinking the fight was over, Gruenwald began to walk away. However, to his surprise, the other student got up and took Gruenwald down using skills he had used from wrestling for the school’s team. After the boys’ tempers dissipated, the wrestler, impressed by Gruenwald’s determination, invited him to wrestling tryouts.
In short time, Gruenwald discovered a natural knack for the sport, giving him stability while growing up in a house with divorced parents. As an eighth grader, he won a state championship. His success continued, and by the time he graduated high school, he had appeared in three state finals and won one. Eventually, these performances would earn him a spot in the inaugural Greendale High School Hall of Fame, to be announced this spring.
Gruenwald was conflicted as to his next step, though. His father and friends urged him to choose the obvious route and attend a Division I school. This would undoubtedly propel his wrestling career. His mother, however, told him to consider a Christian college in order to strengthen his faith. Ultimately, he took his mother’s advice and went to Maranatha Baptist University, electing to stay in his birth state of Wisconsin.
“Some people said, ‘You’re going to be wasted at Maranatha,’ but I went there for different reasons,” Gruenwald explained. “I was trying to do what God wanted me to do with my life. I was still a young Christian and, as a person, knowing my weaknesses, it was good for me to be under Ben’s mentorship.”
“Ben” being Ben Peterson, a two-time NCAA champion and 1972 Olympic gold medalist, who also happened to be the head coach of Maranatha at the time.
“Ben took me under his wing,” said Gruenwald. “He really showed me what it meant to be a Christian man and how to wrestle for God’s glory, rather than my own.”
After an illustrious college career, in which he compiled a total record of 154-19 and won three NCCAA titles in the 132-pound division, Gruenwald was convinced his wrestling career was done. A conversation with his mother changed everything as she reminded him of his lifelong goal to compete in the Olympics. Inspired, he packed up his belongings and drove to Colorado to chase this dream.
Photo courtesy of Jim Gruenwald.
He was eventually accepted into the newly created U.S. wrestling residency program. He began a rigorous training program, including working as a math teacher at Hilltop Baptist School in order to pay the bills. Yet all around him, his personal life began crumbling as trials and temptations appeared. This eventually led Gruenwald back to Christianity, something he had thought little about since being at Maranatha. He had accepted Christ at the age of 11, but his faith had been either hot or cold ever since. It was time for him to make a decision.
“I either needed to act like a Christian or stop calling myself one,” he explained. “That was the moment where I knew I was Christian, but I let God take control of everything — my wrestling, my finances, my relationships — I finally stopped trying to micromanage my life and let God take control.”
In 1995, Gruenwald met his future wife, Rachel, and they were married two years later. She helped Gruenwald give control of his life to Christ and, slowly, other aspects of his life fell in line. Finally, seven years after moving to Colorado, Gruenwald was finally rewarded with a shot at the Olympics. He qualified as a Greco-Roman wrestler for the Sydney games in 2000 after upsetting the usual U.S. favorite during the qualifying rounds. Four years later, he qualified again for the 2004 Olympic games in Athens.
Unfortunately, he failed to medal in either Olympic competition and was forced to retire due to injuries and age after the Athens’ games. The impressive career he left behind includes 10 international tournament wins, a top 10 finish in every world competition in which he competed and the honor of being a two-time Olympic athlete.
After retirement, Gruenwald bounced around at a few different occupations, including a coaching job for U.S. wrestling. He even attempted a comeback by coming out of retirement in 2008 and won his third national title at the U.S. Open. However, a dislocated shoulder derailed his hope to qualify for his third Olympics and he retired permanently.
In 2009, Gruenwald answered God’s call and came to Wheaton in order to begin the tall task of turning around a struggling seven-member wrestling squad, the best of whom had finished 21-21 the year before. Seven years later, the fruits of his labor are evident as the program has 22 wrestlers, has featured a CCIW champion in each of the past two years and has had three All-Americans in the past three years. As one of the wrestling program’s mottos, “Jesus Christ is life, the rest is just wrestling,” suggests, Gruenwald is focused on more than just the wrestling mats.
“I need to keep the promise I made to all the parents who agreed to send their kids here to be mentored by me so that when they graduate from Wheaton College, wherever God calls them,” said Gruenwald, “they need to be able to leave this place as independent men of God, ready to serve Him. That’s what I care about.”
Without a doubt, Gruenwald is a true man of God. His office walls are decorated with reminders of both successes and failures, like when he attempted to run a 100-mile race, yet barely trained and ended up being forced to quit only 27 miles into the competition. This humility becomes apparent in the wrestling program’s chosen motto this year, printed on the back of the team’s shirts — “All in.”
“What we, as Christians, need to be is all in. If I’m at home, as a father, I’m all in. When I’m supposed to be a husband, I’m all in, too. When I’m at a wrestling tournament, I’m all in as a coach. When I’m wrestling with my guys in practice, I’m all in for whatever exercise we’re doing,” explained Gruenwald. “A balanced Christian life is a fake Christian life; we need to be all in wherever we are.”
At home, this “all in” mentality allows Gruenwald to make time for his seven children, all under the age of 14-years-old. Despite continuing to receive calls from Olympic wrestling officials asking him to return and coach for the national team, Gruenwald is convinced that Wheaton is where God wants him and his family. Watching him reminisce on his life and God’s work, the initially intimidating wrestler becomes emotional.
“I look at my life and what I could have been, coming from my dad’s alcoholism, divorced parents and growing up in the inner-city for a while… my life could have been a train wreck,” Gruenwald said. “Some of those decisions and pivotal moments, like accepting Christ and where am I going to go to college… those were defining moments for me. God is amazing.”