Interview with Wheaton coach Jim Gruenwald

Audio interview with Gruenwald also available at Wrestling411.

Wheaton College has a long history of wrestling success and an impressive list of former wrestling alumni.  Wheaton wrestlers have captured six national championships and 22 different wrestlers have captured All-America honors in the program’s history.  In addition, Wheaton wrestling alumni include the well known missionary Jim Elliot as well as Dennis Hastert, the longest serving Republican Speaker of the House in Congressional history.

Wheaton has had different coaches in each of the past two seasons, as 2001 NCAA Champion Dan Weber took over for the 2008-2009 season when Seth Norton stepped down after 12 years at the head of the program.  It was to be a one year appointment, however, as Weber will be taking his family to Zambia this year to become a missionary.  That left Wheaton looking for its third coach in three years as the program seeks a return to stability and greater regional and national success.

The search led Wheaton to select two time Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler and current assistant coach at the U.S. Olympic Education Center Jim Gruenwald.  Gruenwald has been at the USOEC coaching some of the nation’s best up and coming Greco-Roman wrestlers since 2005.  Since then, he has coached some of the top wrestlers in the United States including 2009 National Champions Joe Betterman and Harry Lester along with 2008 Olympians Spenser Mango and Adam Wheeler.

Gruenwald competed at Maranatha Baptist Bible College under Olympic champion Ben Peterson.  He won three National Christian College Athletic Association titles, was a Wheaton Invitational champ, and is a member of the Midlands 20 win club.  After college, he went on to make two Olympic teams and win three U.S. National titles.

It will be a change moving from Greco-Roman wrestling to collegiate, but Gruenwald believes the transition will be smooth. “I’ve spent the last 21 years involved with Coach Peterson’s Camp of Champs, and I had a good bit of success wrestling collegiately.  It will be a little bit like riding a bike.  Wrestling isn’t something that you forget how to do.”  Furthermore, Gruenwald believes his Greco-Roman experience as a competitor and coach can give his wrestlers and advantage. “People believe you don’t use your legs in Greco, but in reality, you just have to be sneaky about it.  Now that we can use the legs, I can try to bring some of the Greco techniques to Wheaton that will be helpful in collegiate wrestling.”  Additionally, Gruenwald has made two technique videos entitled “Greco Techniques for the Folkstyle Wrestler.”  One focused on the two-on-one series and the other on underhooks.

Beyond technique, Gruenwald plans to bring a new attitude and intensity to the Wheaton wrestling program.  “I want to get the most out of these individuals as students, athletes, and Christians, and to inspire them to become the best that they can be.  It can be frustrating as an athlete to have teammates that let wrestling take a backseat, so we want to train each wrestler to take responsibility for maximizing his own abilities.  I believe there is a level of excellence that each of us is required to achieve depending on the abilities God has given us.”

To get the wrestlers to that level, Gruenwald has some strategies that he will look to implement in the first few years of his tenure.  He recognizes that a wholesale change cannot be made overnight, especially since he took the position after all recruiting was done for this year.  Instead, he will focus on the things he can influence.  “We will be well-conditioned, strong, and we’ll focus on a few important techniques.  Additionally I will look to augment each wrestler’s style and strengths to help him have the most success possible.  This is what my coaches have done for me, and I hope to do the same here at Wheaton.”

Recruiting wrestlers to Wheaton will be a different challenge for Gruenwald that it was at the USOEC.  Both organizations have to recruit wrestlers, but the USOEC has no restrictions on what they can offer and when they can contact wrestlers.  The USOEC essentially has 24 wrestlers on full scholarship at Northern Michigan, but the challenge there is to get wrestlers to give up the idea of competing for an NCAA championship to focus on an Olympic style of wrestling.  The contrast with Wheaton is the fact that it is a Christian college that is also very expensive and academically rigorous.  However, finding athletes to fit that mold will require a national focus just like that of the USOEC.  Gruenwald is up to the challenge and sees it as an opportunity as much as a challenge.  “I will try to increase the visibility of the program in order to attract the right type of individual.  Some of the things that make it challenging will be the same things that make the school appealing over a wider area than some other schools.  I’m taking a positive attitude on recruiting with the understanding that what draws students to Wheaton will also draw the right type of wrestlers.  I’m glad that Wheaton has high academic standards.  Why can’t high academic standards and achievement spill over into athletic and spiritual success?”  Gruenwald seems to understand the challenges in recruiting, but he has also identified the strengths of the school.  Last year’s team featured 13 wrestlers from nine different states, a trend that will likely continue if the team is to be successful.

The attitude that Gruenwald will bring to the team is the same one that helped him have success as an athlete and a coach.  Wins and losses will come, but he believes that setting a high standard and focusing on excellence for each individual will be the best path to success on the mat and in life.  “We will do our best to seek perfection and settle for the excellence it brings.  Too many people are satisfied with just getting by, but we will focus on doing their best, because that is significant and successful, regardless of wins and losses.  Those things will take care of themselves if the focus is in the right place.”

Gruenwald is tasked with solidifying the Wheaton wrestling program and helping to return it to its past success.  He has won as a coach and an athlete, and he is up to the challenge set before him at Wheaton.  Over the years, the team will continue to compete against tough competition in the Great Lakes Regional with the goal of adding to that list of 22 All-Americans while developing wrestlers athletically, academically, and spiritually.