VERNAL — Gregg Stensgard has spent decades helping youngsters become some the best wrestlers in the nation.
Now a handful of his former athletes are returning the favor, helping the 53-year-old prepare for his third trip to the Veterans World Greco-Roman Wrestling Championships.
"He's the epitome of a wrestler," said Ryan Lewis, a three-time All-American who wrestled for Stensgard at Uintah High School and now helps him coach the school's team.
"He taught me how to be hard-nosed. He taught me the fundamentals of wrestling," Lewis said. "He taught me how to fight for what you want."
Lewis plans to accompany Stensgard to Hungary in September, when his mentor will square off one more time against the best over-50 wrestlers in the world — many of them Olympic and world champions.
"It's not a joke over there," Stensgard said. "They do not consider this (tournament) as a joke; they consider this a real championship."
Stensgard grew up the "middle child" in a family with eight boys in Fargo, N.D. His brothers were all wrestlers and he started wrestling early, sometime around second grade.
"We wrestled whether you liked it or not, through the door, out the window," Stensgard has said in the past. "When you have eight brothers, you try to become the dominant (one)."
Stensgard's own high school career included state titles. He was a two-time All-American in junior nationals and the first prep wrestler from North Dakota to make the Junior World Team. After high school, he attended North Dakota State University, where he won almost 100 matches.
Stensgard stayed at NDSU for 12 more years as an assistant coach. He continued to wrestle competitively until 1985 when he went into semi-retirement.
That ended — at least at the international level — in 2008, when Stensgard secured a spot at the Veterans World Championships in Perm, Russia, and won a bronze medal. He medaled again in 2011, winning silver at the championship meet in Raciborz, Poland.
"Both my losses were on a call (instead of a pin)," Stensgard said. "I thought I had both matches won, so to me, I haven't felt I've lost a match over there yet."
This year he's got his eyes set on the gold.
"I'm going to try to become the second person from the United States to win a gold at the veterans level," he said.
To do that he's enlisted the help of former Uintah High wrestlers like Lewis, Trevor Murray, and Phillip Keddy.
A three-time All-American as well, Keddy nearly earned himself a trip to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
"I wrestled in the trials this year and lost in the semifinals to the guy who won (a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team)," he said. "It was a close match, but I didn't get the job done."
That loss allowed Keddy to come home to Vernal for a few weeks this summer, and gave the former student a chance to become the teacher.
"He's not going to stop until he gets what he wants," Keddy said after a fast-paced workout with Stensgard. "That's kind of the mentality that we were brought up with in high school, so it runs through all of us."
Stensgard isn't sure how many more times he'll compete in the Veterans World Championships, but he hopes his competitive spirit will inspire his students at Uintah High to strive for personal greatness.
"Being successful is really a simple matter of putting your best foot forward every second of every day," he said. "That's what I'm trying to show these kids, that, hey, you're never too old to do your best."
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