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Olympian ready to help seekers grapple with faith in Christ

ATHENS (BP)–Imagine if you’re a sportswriter assigned to the Olympics in Athens, enthralled with all the world-class competition but, deep inside, hurting with spiritual emptiness.

And then you interview Greco-Roman wrestler Jim Gruenwald, who finished sixth in the 2000 Olympics and, today at the Games, begins his quest for gold in the event’s 132-pound class.

One person who knows what such a reporter might experience is Tony Silengo, a sports chaplain at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

During the 2000 Olympic Trials, after Gruenwald had defeated a longtime nemesis, a reporter from the wrestler’s native state, Wisconsin, sought an interview.

“He and Jim were sitting on an ice chest and the reporter asked Jim right off the bat about his faith and what it meant to him,” Silengo recounted in an e-mail to Baptist Press. “From that point, Jim gave one of the best testimonies of how Jesus was the single greatest part of his wrestling. Jim gave the Gospel message and even asked the gentleman to accept Christ. The writer didn’t accept but he heard!

“There are endless accounts of Jim’s sharing Christ with the lost,” said Silengo of Ambassador Sports International.

“He [Gruenwald] works wrestling camps every summer teaching young wrestlers how to be the best wrestlers in the world,” Silengo continued. “They listen carefully to what he has to say. Then he clearly gives them the Gospel message and every year somewhere around 40-60 young men come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior!”

Gruenwald, 34, lives his faith not just at wrestling meets but at home — he and his wife, Rachel, have a son and daughter. And at school — he’s a math teacher at Hilltop Baptist High School, a ministry of Hilltop Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation in Colorado Springs.

Recapping Gruenwald’s wrestling record, Silengo noted: “Jim moved to Colorado Springs in 1993 after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Wisconsin. He became a member of the first Greco-Roman resident team at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. He qualified for the Olympics in 2000 and lost to two-time Olympic champion Armen Nazarian from Bulgaria. He placed sixth. In the 2003 World Championships, Jim met Nazarian again in the semifinals. Jim was wrestling very well and was tied 1-1 with Armen. As Nazarian attempted a throw, Jim countered and posted his arm and his shoulder was severely dislocated. Jim placed fourth in the world. He had major surgery just days later and is now ready to compete again in Athens!”

Silengo met Gruenwald soon after he arrived in Colorado Springs 11 years ago. “Due to training schedules, it wasn’t easy for him and other wrestlers to attend Wednesday evening services [at Hilltop], so I decided to have Bible studies at the Olympic Training Center and have ever since. We [have] seen many athletes come to know Christ and be baptized. Some have gone on to be great evangelists for Christ.”

Gruenwald, in a testimony on the Christian ministry To The Next Level’s website, tells of going to church occasionally during his childhood until his parents went through a divorce when he was 7; then, “churchgoing became nonexistent.”

“… [F]or the next seven years the closest I came to God, or Jesus Christ, was when I heard either used as an expletive. Neither had any meaning to me.”

When he was 14, living with his mother and brother, she started going to church again and “I did as well.”

During one service led by an evangelist, “my mother noticed me struggling with some of what he had preached in his message. She encouraged me to go forward and see what he had to say at the altar. I did so, and he led me through the ‘Romans Road.’

“I admitted I was a sinner and found out the penalty was more severe than the occasional spanking. [The evangelist] told me of a separation from God for all eternity. He then explained how Christ paid the penalty for me. So I prayed with him there.”

Even so, Gruenwald said, “I struggled with my salvation” for four years.

“Did I say the right thing? … do the right thing? … pray the right prayer?” he recounted. “Finally I grabbed my Bible and went over the same passages that the evangelist led me through years earlier. I asked myself one question, ‘Jim what do you believe?’

“Well, the answer was Christ. I had enough Bible knowledge to know that is exactly what I needed to believe. It wasn’t any prayer or work on my part but a heart-knowledge of the work that Christ did for me.

“I unashamedly declare that I am a Christian, and that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.”

As his friend, sports chaplain Tony Silengo put it, “Jim Gruenwald wrestles not only the best in the world but the best in the spiritual world. … [He] wrestles for the USA and for Jesus Christ.”