Everyday Hero: Rich Jensen's Life Lessons
If Richard Jensen's life story was a topographical map, it would have a couple of lofty mountain peaks, and one massive canyon in the middle.
Jensen lost 15 years of his life to addiction, incarceration, crime and misery. It's what he's done since that's earned him this week's Everyday Hero.
"I call it the magic formula that came together at the right time," says Jensen, referring to the day he got out of the Oregon State Penitentiary in 2003.
"There I was at the homeless shelter (after) getting released from prison, my mom passed away, and I'd just seen my daughter just prior to that for the first time in a couple years," remembers Jensen.
He knew right then he needed to get off drugs, get off the street, and get working on the rest of his life.
He laments, "I'd missed 15 years."
And one more thing:
"I knew if I could restructure my life around the sport of wrestling, then I might have a chance for success."
So he did.
First, he got into treatment and got clean.
"I haven't picked up a drink or a drug in almost 15 years," says Jensen.
Then he got housing, and started school to earn his two-year degree as a certified auto technician.
And then finally, in 2007, at 37 years old, Rich joined the Clackamas Community College wrestling team. It was 19 years after he'd last wrestled in high school, and almost 19 years since he'd chased big money fishing in Alaska, the job that led him to a dark world of drugs and alcohol.
But it wasn't about winning, at least not yet.
"If I could just be that athlete again, make good choices, be part of the team, and work on my health and work on my diet, I knew that it was just going to benefit my life," he says. "At the time, I didn't realize how big it was really going to be."
He joined a team full of students almost 20 years younger than him. "I'm ten years older than the coaches!" he laughs. Teammates took bets on how long he'd last and how soon he'd drop out. He never gave up.
"They didn't know the real depths of why I was there," says Jensen. "I was trying to fill a void inside of me. I'd missed that boat 15 years prior."
He lost almost all of his matches that first year. It didn't matter.
"Magic happened," he remembers. "Not just for me, but for the athletes, too, because these kids are seeing what I'm doing. They see that I'm over the challenges of life! And I'm there just pushing through the pain and the struggle at 37 years old."
After that first season, Jensen committed himself even more to improving his body, as he continued to change his life. He trained all summer, lost 15 pounds, and came back to the team for his second season as a new man. It made a big difference.
Jensen won his first few matches that year, and only lost a couple all season. He qualified for regionals. He lost in the regional finals, but he still qualified for nationals. And all the time, he was under a new level of scrutiny, an unblinking eye. The Oregonian had picked up his story and then ESPN had caught wind. The network's show "Outside the Lines" sent a camera crew to follow Jensen to those meets.
It would be intimidating for most people, maybe even more for a man who'd come back from so much, and was taking life one day at a time. But Jensen had a warmer view of his potential fame.
He posed a rhetorical question to himself: "Do you have to win the tournament to get the documentary?"
And he realized he didn't.
"The win's already happened, you know? It would be a bonus for me to win the tournament," he says. "For me, I'd already won my life back."
And here is where the story turns to Rich's brand-new status as an Everyday Hero.
A teacher in upstate New York saw the ESPN piece, which went on to earn Jensen an Emmy. That teacher incorporated it into a classroom lesson. Jensen first learned that when he went to his post office box, and it was crammed with letters.
That teacher had used Rich's story to start a conversation, and encouraged his students to write him, talk about the struggles they face in their own lives, and ask him a question. Rich read the 20 letters and wondered how to respond.
He could have written back. But he went a step further. He called the principal and said, "'I'm gonna fly to the school and talk to everyone.'" And he did. And it rocked him.
"I left there so inspired!" he says. "Things went well. First time felt great. Felt like I reached em. Felt like the impact was high and I was like 'WE HAVE TO DO THIS!'"
As he realized the power of his own story, he started Be a Champion in Life.
"I couldn't sit on my hands anymore, once I realized the importance of it," Jensen says.
At first, Jensen shared his story mostly on social media, and occasionally at school or to wrestling teams. But word got out, and demand for his story grew. He started talking to more and more classes and full school assemblies. And he also kept wrestling.
In 2016, he won a national championship in wrestling. He was in his mid-40s. It was the culmination of a lifelong dream. Even in his championship match, he battled back from adversity. Down five points after the first round, he pinned his opponent in the second.
"Anything's possible," he says. "You got to stay in the fight, keep trying to become a better person and be a person of integrity, you know? Make good choices."
He could be talking about wrestling or he could be talking about life. For Jensen, they're hand-in-hand.
Last year, Rich Jensen shared his story with about 30,000 kids, from middle schoolers through college, and a bunch of wrestling teams, too. In a few weeks, he'll be heading to New York for a community awareness about the dangers of drugs, and the power of positive choices.
"I teach the kids a lot about what I've learned over the years in the sport, and also what I've learned in life," he says. "It's very intimate, it's honest, and I'm very, very genuine about how I share it, and so kids understand it, it connects with them."