WOODS CROSS — Wrestler Ben Kjar (rhymes with care) knows making it to the Olympics next summer in London will not be a cakewalk. Every time he turns around, there will be a new hold to maneuver out of, a grip to loosen, a takedown to avoid.
And that's before he ever gets on the mat.
Like thousands of amateur athletes dreaming of competing in the Olympics, Ben knows that being talented isn't enough; you also have to be able to afford it. Entering the kinds of international competitions necessary to get you ready for the ultimate international competition involves a certain amount of money, and unless you refer to Bill Gates as "Dad," that can present fundraising challenges.
So Ben has come up with a plan.
If you will help his cause, he will help your cause.
By telling his story.
For varying price levels (there's a gold package, a silver package, and so forth), Ben will show up at your place of business, or your school, and give a clinic and inspirational speech that explains how he became one of America's top wrestlers.
It's a story you have to see to believe.
Because Ben's story starts with his face.
He was born with Crouzon syndrome, a genetic disorder that retards or stops the growth of some of the bones in the skull, resulting in facial deformities and other serious complications. He had his first corrective surgery when he was 9 months old and another at age 5.
Doctors advised Ben's parents, Stana and Scott, that their middle child (Ben is No. 4 in a lineup of seven kids) would have physical limitations all his life. Among other things, contact sports would be taboo.
All was more or less fine until Ben turned 11 and all the other kids started playing organized football – and he wanted to join them.
He begged. He pleaded. He threw a fit.
Stana and Scott held firm. Absolutely not.
He begged, pleaded and threw more fits.
Finally, one day, his parents stopped, took a long, hard look at the absolutely distraught boy standing in front of them, and said, "OK."
But if he was going to play, he would play like everyone else. There would be no special helmets or equipment. No limitations.
Lo and behold, he survived football.
But only to a point. Ben's dad is 6-1 but his mom is 5-2. He got his mom's height. By the time he got to junior high he accepted the reality that he was too small for football and too short for basketball.
Wrestling, however, was a different story.
And wrestling was very much a part of the family culture. Ben's uncle, Shandell Smoot, was an All-American wrestler at Ricks College. His dad, Scott, competed at BYU. Ben and his four brothers — Luke is older, Adam and Danner are younger (but bigger) — went at it all the time on the living room floor at home, with the rug burns to prove it.
So wrestling it was.
Through three years at Centerville Junior High, Ben never lost a match.
By the time he got to Viewmont High School he was ready for more, but his doctors said it was time for another important surgery on his face. The surgery would correct, among other things, a severe underbite that prevented him from chewing effectively. But there was a downside. The recovery time would be two years, at least, and after that he would probably never be able to wrestle again.
Remember that fit Ben threw when he was 11 and wanted to play football?
He threw it again. This time at the doctors.
Darned if he was going to stop being an active, energetic human being.
He declined the surgery.
He went on to become a three-time state champion in high school. Overall, his record was 121-6. In his senior year in 2002, when Viewmont won its first-ever state wrestling championship, he wasn't taken down in a match. The entire season.
Every big-time wrestling school wanted the kid with the funny face from Utah. He accepted a full-ride scholarship from Oklahoma University, where he red-shirted for a season while getting ready to serve an LDS mission.
While in Oklahoma, in one of those moments some people might call serendipitous and Ben calls heaven-sent, he was introduced to a craniofacial surgeon named Kevin Smith, who told Ben he could perform an operation on his face that, after just a year's recovery time, would allow him to wrestle again.
Ben had the surgery, took a year off to recover, and then left for two years to serve a Spanish-speaking mission in Arizona.
When he returned in 2006, he decided to stay home and enroll at Utah Valley University to support his longtime club coach, Greg Williams, who had taken over the school's developing wrestling program.
He left UVU this past spring with a degree, a wife (he met LaCol Grant, a UVU track athlete, in 2008 and they were married in 2009), a four-year won-lost record of 129-35 and a fourth-place finish in the 125-pound class at the 2011 NCAA nationals — UVU's first-ever wrestling all-American.
He's 28 years old, co-owner of a wrestling gym in Woods Cross called Kingdom Klub that he started with his brother Luke, and eager to finally realize a lifelong dream of wrestling in the Olympics.
In a nutshell, that's his story.
He calls it, "Face of a Champion."
It's got him this far. Now he hopes it will get him to London.
You can reach Ben at Kingdomwrestling@gmail.com or 801-381-0779.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: email@example.com