I was never going to be an NCAA Champion or an All-American, but the experience of being a Stanford Wrestler taught me some incredibly important lessons that continue to define me to this day. It would be a significant detriment to Stanford University to deprive others of these opportunities, not just the current and future wrestlers, but the wider Stanford community. I’d like to share some of the lessons that I gained from this time in my life.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to wrestle for Stanford at 125 lbs from 1997 to 2001. I come from a middle class background and went to a private Catholic high school in a well-to-do neighborhood in Sacramento, California. My challenge was that I was considered too small to compete and faced considerable obstacles to doing so.
I started participating in the sport of judo when I was six years old, and was often undersized. My family and I would travel on weekends to tournaments all over California where I would compete against other competitors who outweighed me by as much as 40 lbs. It actually didn’t occur to me until over 20 years later that this was in any way unusual.
When I started high school, I wanted to join the wrestling team, but the State of California had just instituted a minimum weight of 88 lbs (which was removed soon after I left high school). Upon entering high school, I weighed 70 lbs, and it took me two years to exceed the minimum weight. My senior year of high school, I wrestled at 103 lbs and was 34-5, but I did not achieve my goal of qualifying for the state tournament. Even when we do not accomplish our goals, the experience is valuable based on what we learn from it. To give up after a failure is to lose twice.
Disappointed in failing to reach my goal, I promised myself that I would try out for the Stanford wrestling program. The lowest weight class in college is 125 lbs, so I would be about 20 lbs smaller than other competitors. I figured I would take the sport as far as I could go and be satisfied with knowing that I gave it my best, but fully expected to be cut within a few days. After an incredibly difficult first week, I was called into the head coach’s office. He let me know that he had decided to keep me on the team. I was completely stunned.
The team was a wide mix of people from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, and different perspectives on life. I had never encountered such a group of characters before in my life, but they accepted me as one of them even though I was a walk-on who clearly didn’t belong. I became active in recruiting and tried to contribute in any way I could on or off the mat.
The turning point for me was to stop thinking of myself as “the walk-on” or “the one who is too small to wrestle in college”. I saw that I could work just as hard as anyone else and learned to absorb new techniques through observation. I altered my style and started to see results in competition. My teammates saw the improvement and encouraged me to push myself harder. My junior year, I was voted the Most Improved Wrestler on the team and even won an important dual meet match. Growth starts with a willingness to change yourself.
I graduated in March 2002, about 6 months after 9/11, in the midst of a depressed economy. The images of the attacks haunted me because I could not understand what would lead someone to commit those acts. Unable to find work in the ensuing economic depression, I set off for Northern Ireland to understand conflict and find answers to some of the questions that I had. I ended up finding work at a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation there and worked in Catholic and Protestant communities in East Belfast that had been immersed in cycles of kidnappings, murders, and bombings for over 40 years.
The values and ethos of wrestling allowed me to bond with people by seeing them not as the violent animals that they were portrayed as in the media, but as people who were struggling to exist. By creating space where they could be themselves and tell their stories in an honest way, we were able to build trust and open up productive discussions between both sides. Eventually, a proposal was made to allow independent observers to be at the borders between the communities which are normally fraught with violence. After a lot of discussion, the community leaders consented to this, and this initiative significantly reduced the violence to the point where both sides eventually agreed to disarm. The model spread across communities in Northern Ireland and dramatically reduced the conflict on the ground.
At this point, you are probably asking what this has to do with wrestling. I firmly believe that how we perceive others is always a choice. If we choose to find the humanity in them and to listen to their hopes, we are no longer threatened by them and can focus on how we can empower the other person to be the best possible version of her/himself. The sport of wrestling taught me about reminding people of what their best version can be and teaching them to demand better of themselves based on the person they want be and the standards to which they hold themselves. But in stressful and difficult times, it is a very hard thing to remember.
For me, learning this lesson was only possible through a struggle like the sport of wrestling because it presents unique challenges to an individual who can give up at any time. Most of the sport happens in a basement late at night or on runs early in the morning, far from any competition. You realize quickly that you are the only person holding yourself accountable for your results. You are the master of your own standards, but fatigue and pain make it very easy to lower those standards.
Wrestling was transformative for me because it represented a journey from realizing that failure is both a loss and an opportunity to grow, questioning the limits and narratives in my mind in order to grow beyond what I thought was possible, and holding myself to very high standards because I am ultimately only accountable to myself. Because of this unique journey and the time in which I graduated from Stanford, I had the fortune to be able to bring these lessons to a situation that hopefully created beneficial change for people. I am extremely grateful for this and hope that others will be able to be given such opportunities in the future.
Years after I left Northern Ireland, extremist groups tried to instigate the return of the conflict. In response, tens of thousands of Northern Irish residents came on to the streets to protest that they would not return to the violence that marred them for over a generation. You can see some photos from that amazing day here. Around that time, a young man was inspired by these scenes and wrote a very important poem about the conflict. It is called Shaking Hands which is also how a wrestling match begins and ends and encapsulates a lot of the values about which I have just written. I’d like to share a few lines of the poem with you:
Because what’s the alternative?
Because of courage.
Because it’s a small thing; shaking hands; it happens every day.
Because it takes a second to say hate, but it takes longer, much longer, to be a great leader.
Much, much longer.
Because this just might be good.
Because who said this would be easy?
Because some people love what you stand for, and for some, if you can, they can.
Because a hand is only a hand; so hang onto it.
-- Padraig O Tuama (2012)
I recognize that these are difficult and unprecedented times for Stanford and the rest of the world. Being fortunate enough to attend Stanford and to walk on to the wrestling team is one of the most impactful experiences of my life. I would like to re-emphasize the point here that Stanford’s goal is to produce world-class leaders, and I believe that the values and lessons of wrestling contribute to the Stanford community in ways that uniquely enhance this mission. Also, as Stanford, it is our responsibility in these challenging times to remind ourselves of what we aspire to be as well as the standards to which we hold ourselves. These standards are larger than “finances and competitive excellence”. I believe this decision to eliminate the Stanford Wrestling program is not consistent with these standards to which Stanford holds itself for developing world-class leaders. As such, I respectfully ask that it be reconsidered and a dialogue started with members of the Stanford Wrestling team and alumni network so that a better decision can be made that benefits the entire Stanford community.
- Ryan Jung