As a wrestler in high school, the biggest battle Richard Jensen faced was outside the arena. Plagued by his insecurities and low self-esteem, Jensen was sure of one thing: he would graduate high school and join the college wrestling team.
But his life took an unexpected turn. One he was unable to control for 15 years.
Standing in front of 660 students at Henley High School last week, Jensen, 46, relived his past in the hope his mistakes would open the students’ eyes and encourage them to stay on track and take the path Jensen never could.
“You’ve got to understand that the choices you’re making now can affect you the rest of your life,” he said.
After graduating high school in 1989, Jensen drifted from job to job for a few years, eventually settling on a fishing boat in Alaska. It was during that time, at 19, Jensen tried methamphetamine for the first time. He was hooked.
When he returned home to Portland in 1997, his drug and alcohol addiction had consumed him. He was a “monster,” stealing, beating people up and holding them hostage to feed his addiction and produce his drugs.
Over the next 15 years, Jensen would find himself in and out of jail for six of those years. Each time he promised his family and friends he would get clean and get his life back on track, but it didn’t happen.
A commitment to sober up
It was Oct. 10, 2003, when Jensen’s sister called the jail to tell her brother their mother had cancer. Sobbing through the phone, he promised his mother he would change, words that sounded all too familiar.
His mother died three weeks later.
When Jensen was released from jail the day after Thanksgiving in 2004 he stuck to his word.
In 2006, he enrolled at Clackamas Community College as a 36-year-old freshman and joined the wrestling team, participating in regional and national tournaments. In 2015 he competed in Athens, Greece, for the U.S. Veterans Team at the World Championships. Jensen retired from wrestling in 2016 after his win at the National Championships in April.
He has been clean and sober for 13 years.
Addressing the student body at Henley High School, Jensen told them to take a higher path, achieve their goals and steer clear of the mistakes he made.
“I get not one minute back. Fifteen years is gone,” he said. “Drugs have an ultimate plan to kill you. It’s job is to take everything you love away from you.”
Mistakes can last a lifetime
Having survived high school and the pressure from other students to look and act a certain way, Jensen iterated that he understands the struggles students face today and the desire to fit in, sometimes so much so that students slide off track and never quite find their way back.
“It started with bad decisions and it can happen to anyone,” he said. “It’s the friends you keep and the choices you make.”
Through his business, “Be a Champion in Life,” Jensen has visited hundreds of schools and colleges nationwide for the past eight years, giving motivational speeches to students, encouraging them to graduate and focus on a happy, healthy future.
“My job is to have a conversation with them, it’s a teaching moment because they’re not getting it out there,” he said. “The kids are not educated in this area. There’s no curriculum around it. Their parents aren’t talking to them about the dangers and what it does.”
Dealing with drugs in local schools
After a series of drug related incidents at Henley High School, Principal Jack Lee said he sought Jensen out and invited him to tour various county schools within the Klamath Basin.
“This fall, as early as September, for the first time in my 27 years have I heard the word cocaine and students using it,” he said.
Although the issue “isn’t brand new,” Lee said it has come to the surface, so the school called in 50 students at random and asked them what they thought of the situation and they said it was a problem, which Lee said helped him move forward with his decision to call Jensen.
“Bringing Rich in will hopefully put it on the table for the kids, maybe shock factor, but it’s the guy that has lived it, breathed it, survived it and is now doing good things,” he said. “It’s the beginning of what I hope to be a county-wide movement.”
Following the assembly, numerous students thanked Jensen for talking about his experience, which proved to be eye-opening for many of them, including sophomores Casey Paxton, Myles Moore and Cameron Caldwell, who said they already encourage their friends to steer clear of drugs and for some to stop taking them altogether.
Jensen spent the day at Henley, attending classes and talking with students one-on-one before leading the wrestling team’s practice after school, giving students the opportunity to try and take him down. Members of the team said they were excited to talk with Jensen in person, outside the assembly, to ask for wrestling tips and life advice.
He provided students with his merchandise, including t-shirts and wristbands, which Lee encouraged them to take only if they are willing to join Jensen’s team and support his mission.
“You guys have the opportunity to do something much greater than I’ve ever done,” Jensen said. “Be a champion in life.”