Traumatic events can change a life forever.

For Dan Russell, a near-tragedy in high school led him to Portland State and four consecutive NCAA Division II wrestling titles. More importantly, his faith helped him through those difficult times and to a lifelong commitment as a pastor, working with young people.

Russell attracted a lot of attention as a high school wrestler in Gresham, Ore., winning four state titles and going undefeated his entire high school career.  But his decision to attend nearby Portland State (which now competes at the Division I level) was all about his brother Joe.

“We were raised as twins, but I was a year older,” Russell said. “We both were involved in wrestling at an early age and were inspired by brothers John and Ben Peterson, Olympic medalists in the 1970s.

“Joe was in a serious motorcycle accident our junior year in high school and I wanted to remain close to home to be part of his recovery. The accident left Joe partially paralyzed on the left side of his body and he spent three weeks in a drug-induced coma, followed by a long and grueling healing process.”

Dan Russell made an immediate impact on the Portland State wrestling team, winning his first NCAA championship as a freshman in 1988, while the team placed seventh. 

FOUR-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPIONS
Name School (Div.) Years
Tim Wright SIUE (II) 1984-85-86-87
Dan Russell Portland
State (II)
1988-89-90-91
Pat Smith Oklahoma
State (I)
1990-91-92-94
Cael Sanderson Iowa
State (I)
1999-00-01-02
Cole Province Central Oklahoma(II) 2001-02-03-04
Les Sigman Nebraska-
Omaha (II)
2003-04-05-06
Marcus LeVesseur Augsburg (III) 2003-04-05-07

“I met the returning national champion in the finals, Kip Kristoff [SIU Edwardsville], and it was an amazing win for me,” Russell said. “Kip redshirted the next year, but we met again in the finals my junior year. It was a great rivalry and he was a great competitor.”

As a sophomore, Russell again was a national champion, and the Portland State team amassed a record five individual titles on its way to the1989 Division II team championship, its first in wrestling since 1967. Russell (again vs. Kristoff individually) and the team repeated as national champions in 1990. 

Russell completed his collegiate career with another title his senior year, becoming one of just four Division II wrestlers to win four individual championships. He also was named Most Outstanding Wrestler at the championship for a third consecutive year, an honor unmatched in Division II history. The Vikings placed fifth in the 1991 team finals.

“It was a much more rewarding and fun experience to win the two NCAAs as a team than it was as an individual,” Russell said. “We got to accomplish something together and celebrate together.”

Russell’s success was not limited to wrestling. He also was a four-time Academic All-American for the Vikings. 

“I always believed that you should give 100 percent to be the best you can be,” Russell said. “I wanted to be the best both on the mat and in life. I applied what I learned in wrestling to the classroom.”

After graduation, Russell continued to train and compete and was named an alternate for both the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. He also became a youth pastor. 

“My faith has been a big part of my life and my sport taught me a lot about the wrestling match we all face in life,” Russell said. “God has used this sport to shape me into the man I am today.” 

Currently lead pastor at Battle Ground Foursquare Church in Battle Ground, Wash., Russell also serves as the wrestling coach for the local high school. 

“I have learned so much from being part of this sport that I feel a responsibility to give back,” Russell said. “So many people invested in me and I can never repay all of them, but I can pass along what they taught me to the next generation.”

Russell has been married 20 years to the former Joy Lammert, a three-time All-America volleyball player at Portland State, and they have four children, Ryan, Sarah, Dani and Hannah.

Brother Joe is now the wrestling coach at George Mason in Fairfax, Va., his first head coaching job after serving as a successful assistant coach at Minnesota since 1995. Although now separated by thousands of miles, the brothers remain close. 

“Joe is an inspiration to me and an amazing man,” Dan said.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2012 version of Champion Magazine.