Vernal wrestling coach claims world title, receives hero's welcome
VERNAL — Imagine being able to say you're one of only three Americans to have accomplished something on the international stage.
Gregg Stensgard no longer wonders what that might feel like.
On Sept. 19, Stensgard won a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Veterans World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. The title put the 53-year-old Vernal man in the elite company of Valentin Kalika and Ronald Hughes, both of California, as the only Americans to win a gold medal in the wrestling style at the veterans level.
"I was just so happy for him," said three-time All-American wrestler Ryan Lewis, who accompanied Stensgard to Hungary and served as his coach.
"It's been a dream of his since he started wrestling. He always wanted to be a world champion," Lewis said. "To finally achieve that dream, you know, words can't explain it."
Stensgard and Lewis were given a hero's welcome Monday night, complete with a police escort and a huge American flag suspended from the ladder of a fire truck.
"There's not often I don't have things to say," a stunned Stensgard told a throng of well-wishers. "This is a huge surprise to me."
The Uintah High School coach and teacher spent months preparing for his third shot at an international championship. In 2008, he earned a bronze medal in Perm, Russia. He followed that up with a silver in 2011 when the Veteran Worlds were held in Raciborz, Poland.
For his latest title shot, Stensgard enlisted the help of Lewis and a handful of other former Uintah High wrestlers as sparring partners.
"All the guys were coming in and pushing me so hard," Stensgard said. "They were the coach and I was the pupil for a change."
That extra help was much needed, because the road to gold wasn't an easy one.
In his first match, Stensgard beat former Veterans World champion Wilhelm Schroeder of Germany, then followed that up with a win over Ari Markola of Sweden. In his semifinal round he defeated Endel Uppin of Estonia, and beat Hehadziv Rudziak of Belarus for the gold.
"He gave me a kiss," Lewis said, recalling Stensgard's reaction after winning the final match. "I knew he was happy, because you don't get many kisses out of Gregg Stensgard."
"I maybe gave him a peck on the cheek," Stensgard retorted. "We were in Europe, so that's acceptable there."
The kiss may have been memorable, but hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner" played in his honor was unforgettable, Stensgard said.
"It was the sweetest sound I've ever heard in my life and I was pretty misty," he said. "I had a smile across my face and probably a little tear in my eye."
Stensgard's success on the international level earned him Wrestler of the Week honors from USA Wrestling for only the second time in his decades-long career. And while the medals, championships and recognition are nice, the coach said what's more important to him is teaching his students a valuable lesson.
"Good things happen with hard work," he said. "I hope I'm a good example of that."
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