Wrestling for the Gospel

Photo by Ted Wilcox

The Match is about to begin. Dan Hughes, a slender 21-year-old, jogs in place and jukes and shuffles his feet like a boxer. Soon he'll face an opponent on the bright yellow and red mat, reminiscent of a large bull's-eye. The crowd cheers loudly in Spanish. The expression of Dan's usually jovial face turns dead serious.

It's time to wrestle.

Dan journeyed to Guatemala, a country in Central America, along with a team of 6 other wrestlers and 3 coaches, for a 3-week trip with Athletes in Action, the sports ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. Each year AIA sends out teams of athletes in several sports to compete in tournaments and do evangelism in the United States and beyond.

"Our purpose is to wrestle for the glory of God," says Cam McElhany, the AIA leader of the trip. "Our wrestlers are not in Guatemala to make themselves famous."

Yet the very nature of athletic competition makes this challenging. The goal of sports is to win, not lose. It's an easy arena to seek recognition for oneself instead of giving the glory to someone else.

Dan knows this too well. As a wrestler at Michigan State University, his skills are constantly put to the test on the mat, and he admittedly has struggled to keep his focus on God.

But his perspective about wrestling will begin to change on this trip to Guatemala.

At first glance, Dan doesn't look like a steely competitor, with his shaggy blond hair and nice-guy demeanor. But get him on the mat, and he's fiery strong with quick movements and amazing flexibility.

Since 1983, AIA has sent wrestling teams to Guatemala, a place where the sport is still in the early stages. "They help us increase our level of competition," says Miguel Frech, president of the Guatemalan Wrestling Federation. "We hope they will continue to come and help us."

More than 150 wrestlers from 5 countries participated in this year's Pat Shaw Tournament, named after the famed American who brought wrestling to Guatemala. The 2-day event, held in Guatemala City, was just one of many activities Dan and the others participated in during the trip, including wrestling practices and evangelism.

But for now, the tournament demands Dan's attention. Competing in the 74-kilogram division (163 pounds), Dan has easily won his first match. But his second adversary is the hulking Guatemalan Moises Arguetta, who outweighs Dan by nearly 10 pounds and has powerful legs and arms, like a bulldog. As he swaggers to the mat, Dan shakes loose his right shoulder -- the same shoulder he had surgery on less than 5 months prior.

Dan tore his labrum, the ring of cartilage that stabilizes the joint. Doctors said the injury might end his wrestling career, and he had surgery in February. Though the results were uncertain, he committed to go to Guatemala. By May, his shoulder felt surprisingly good.

Yet competing in the tournament would test its strength.

Dan enters the mat wearing a red-and-black-striped singlet, the name for the thin wrestling suit. He shakes hands with Moises, then drops low in a crouched position, catlike and ready. The ref blows his whistle and the two lock arms, grappling for position.

Wrestling is almost second nature to Dan. In high school, he quickly earned success, becoming team captain as a sophomore and posting a 55-2 record as a senior. His only losses occurred in the state tournament.

College wrestling was a different world, with a much higher level of competition. But it's also where Dan deepened his faith.

Growing up, Dan prayed to God but never felt a deep connection. As a freshman he began attending AIA's weekly meetings. The following summer he participated in an Ultimate Camp, a yearly AIA event where Christian athletes from around the United States gather for one week to train and incorporate faith into their sport.

At the camp, surrounded by other Christian athletes, Dan sensed something click in his understanding of God. "I really wanted to live my life for God," he says, "but I realized that I wasn't going to get past my sin on my own." One day, alone in his room, he prayed and committed his life to Christ.

But even as a believer, he struggled to keep the right perspective with wrestling.

At a tournament his second season, he lost 2 matches in a row. He found a place in the hallway where he cried for an hour, cursing God. How could this be a part of God's plan for me? he thought.

After another tournament, he was cut from the team. He was in shock. Wrestling was his whole world, and that world had crumbled.

Dan began to pray and ask God to change his perspective. He sensed God still had plans for him with the sport.

His third year in college, Dan tried out again for the wrestling team and made it. But the world of college wrestling is uncertain, and Dan continued to worry about his future.

Back on the mat, Dan is surprised by the strength of his opponent. Arms locked, the Guatemalan catches Dan off guard, pushing him out of bounds and scoring the first point. Dan is losing.

Competitions have always made Dan nervous. Sometimes even 2 weeks before a match, anxiety would plague him. Even when he did well, he would berate himself for the small mistakes he made, vowing to do better. Losing was unthinkable. "It was more than a loss," he says. "It was a hit on my identity."

The day before the matches in Guatemala, Dan kept praying that God would take away any unhealthy nervousness and that it would be about Him, not about seeking his own accolades.

Participating in the other parts of the AIA trip, especially evangelism, helped him keep the right focus.

On a Thursday night, Dan and the other AIA wrestlers gathered more than 115 competitors in a cafeteria of the sports complex to watch Unfading Glory, an AIA movie featuring wrestling greats like Olympic gold medalist John Peterson, a current staff member with AIA.

Before the movie began, Dan told the crowd the story of how he became a Christian. Cristobal Chamale, leader of AIA in Guatemala, translated Dan's words into Spanish.

"I want you to know that Jesus loves you and you can trust Him with all your problems," said Dan. "He gives me a great peace, not just with wrestling, but with all areas of my life."

After the movie, Cristobal offered the crowd a chance to commit their lives to Christ. Many wrestlers responded, praying a prayer to commit their lives to God out loud.

This result is not unusual.

Guatemala is a very religious country -- making it difficult to discern sincere seekers of God from the ritualistic. Nearly 98 percent of the people are considered Christians, and the number of evangelicals surpassed 25 percent in 2001.

"Many Guatemalans think they are Christians," says Cristobal, "but they are not. A personal relationship with Jesus is something alive, not just a religious practice."

Yet spiritual interest is nominal, and talk about Jesus rarely surpasses cliches. A popular T-shirt worn by people across the country says, "Jesús es mi amigo." Billboards boast slogans like "Jesús es el Señor de Guatemala."

Back at the tournament, Dan and his opponent continue grappling. Neither is conceding much ground. Moises begins to push him, but Dan somehow spins him out of bounds, tying the score 1-1.

They lock grips again. This time Dan gets Moises off his feet and springs on top of him. Dan has the upper hand.

After a Tuesday night practice, Dan and the team held an evangelistic outreach using Signs, a film about extraterrestrial invasion. More than 30 Guatemalan wrestlers sat on benches, watching the movie projected on the wall.

After the movie ended, an AIA staff member addressed the crowd. "When I watch a movie," said Zack Harrod, "I like to think about the deeper things in it." Zack led a discussion and eventually explained how people can begin a relationship with God.

Afterward, Douglass, a wrestler with slick black hair, approached the American team. Crying, he asked for prayer. He explained that his dad is an alcoholic, and he continued to sob.

"God is pursuing you," Dan told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. Dan and the others crowded around him and prayed for him -- forming an athletic prayer huddle of sorts.

Meeting this sincere spiritual seeker was a high point for the team, evidence that God was working through them.

Back at the tournament, the match peaks as Dan pries Moises off the mat and pushes his shoulders down. He looks at the ref who counts for one second and waves his hands. It's a pin. Dan wins. The crowd cheers, and other wrestlers congratulate him and give high fives as he walks off the mat.

A little later, Dan easily wins his third match, earning him first place in his division for the tournament; his shoulder gave him little trouble.

But most significantly, Dan wrestled without anxiety and felt like he was actually competing for God's glory. It's a victory that may not make the record books, but is one Dan won't forget. "God brought my heart to a place where I was determined to compete for Him," he says. "I felt free."