Award Honorees

Gary Christensen '71

From champion wrestler to wrestling coach, few athletes in Minnetonka's history have achieved and given back as much as Gary Christensen has.

Gary moved to Minnetonka when he was in sixth grade. He played football and baseball, but loved wrestling the most. "I enjoyed the one-on-one competition," says Gary. In eighth grade, Gary was allowed to practice, but not compete, with the ninth grade wrestling team. A year later, he got his shot to compete and had an undefeated season, winning 10 matches.

When he transitioned to Minnetonka High School, Gary joined the wrestling team, which was coached by Ray Christensen. Gary's tenth grade season was short due to a collarbone injury sustained while playing football. Despite the setback, Gary was one of only three other sophomores to earn a varsity letter in wrestling that year. In his junior year, Gary lettered again and placed third in the Lake Conference Championships and fourth Regionals.

Going into his senior year, Gary had his eyes on a state championship and took the summer to get prepared. His brother, a wrestler at Minnesota State University Mankato at the time, set up a training program for Gary and two of his wrestling teammates which included weight lifting, running, jump roping, training with a boxing bag, and wrestling in the afternoons. "It was a training program where he pushed us harder than any of us had ever been pushed in our life," he recalls.

Gary felt the training gave him a big advantage over his competition. He had gained 20 pounds and was able to bench press over 300 pounds. "I took advantage of the growth spurt along with all the weightlifting and working out so it just hit me at the right time," says Gary.

The training paid off and Gary went 32-2 in his senior season, this time as captain. Gary led the Skippers to a District Championship and a Region 5 Championship. Individually, Gary achieved first place at the Lake Conference, District, and Regional Championships.

It was winning the Regional Championship that Gary says was his favorite memory from his high school wrestling career. He beat John Mariucci, of the Mariucci family, with 15 seconds left in the match. This win led Minnetonka to a Regional Championship, but also prevented their bitter rival, Wayzata, from taking home the trophy. "If I had lost, [Wayzata] would have won the regional tournament. But since I won, we did. And it was really fun finishing up like that," says Gary.

At the state tournament, Gary finished third, losing only his second match of the season in the semifinals to Brad Rheingens who went on to wrestle with the 1980 US Olympic Team.

After that season, Gary was recruited to wrestle at several schools, but ultimately chose to attend Minnesota State University- Mankato because of their excellent coaching.

Gary continued to have success through college, starting on varsity all four years. In his freshman year, Gary went 12 and 8 and placed third in the North Central Conference. He went 22 and 5 in his sophomore year and was also the North Central Conference Champion. In his junior year, now a captain, Gary was named an All American, had a record of 18 and 5, and placed fifth in Division II of the NCAA.

In his senior year, not only was Gary named All-American, again, but he was now the NCAA Division II National Champion, and broke a Mankato State dual meet record of 44 wins.

Gary says that all of these successes gave him "something to shoot for." Throughout high school and into college, Gary had goals for himself that he wanted to achieve, staying focused on them was important to him. "Once I made it or not, it wasn't as important as the fact that I had goals I wanted to attain," says Gary.

After his senior senior season, Gary was invited to try out for the US Olympic Wrestling Team, but declined. In the fall of 1975, Gary married his high school sweetheart, Debra. He also took the time to focus on his career and attended dental school at the University of Minnesota.

Despite not continuing to wrestle competitively post-college, Gary returned to the sport as an assistant coach at Minnetonka for Ray Christensen, his former wrestling coach, in 1976. After completing dental school, Gary accepted the head coach position and coached in 1981 and 1982.

Gary coached several wrestlers to the state tournament, and some went on to become excellent wrestlers in college. His experience in wrestling was a valuable tool, and Gary decided to put that back into the program that had given him so much when he was younger. "They needed a coach who had participated in college to really get some of these kids to the next level, and I felt I was able to do that for them," says Gary.

After a few years of coaching at Minnetonka, Gary left to focus on his dental practice in Excelsior. He also took the opportunity to get involved in his daughter's sports, coaching in the Plymouth Premier Soccer League from 1998 to 2006.

Gary also continued to excel in sports, himself. Sponsored by Gear West, Gary began cycling and won the Lake Rebecca Mountain Bike Race in 1997. He took up cross country skiing and was sponsored by Hoiggards. He raced several times in the American Birkebeiner. Gary also achieved much success in racquetball, placing second in the Minnesota State Racquetball Tournament in 1988 and first in the state doubles championship in 1986 and 1987. If that were not enough, Gary also ran in the precursor to the Twin Cities Marathon in 1978.

Giving advice to today's students, Gary says "if you have a set of goals, and you have a plan to get there, you can use that in so many different ways."

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