Top of the world, bottom of the gutter and back. What a trip it’s been for Paul Tellgren.
“I had a pretty expansive career and I got to travel the world,” Tellgren said. “I got to wrestle some of the best guys in the world and we’re just a small little training center in Northern Michigan and we had half the World and Olympic team in our wrestling room every day, so it was quite the environment to grow up in.”
Coming from Anoka, Minnesota Tellgren always stood out as a wrestler, and although the sport of wrestling may not always take you to warm, resort towns, the cold winters of Marquette, Michigan are top of the heap for Greco-Roman wrestling.
Going to school at Northern Michigan gave Tellgren the ability to complete his education while also putting himself in position to make a National team and hopefully more. After hanging with the class of the sport, injuries started to pile up and Tellgren had a choice to make: fight through the injuries or take a break and risk being left behind.
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In Tellgren’s mind, if he was still eyeing the top of that mountain, either option was about to make the climb significantly steeper.
“In 2012, my job, my livelihood, was wrestling for the United States,” Tellgren explained. “I started to get concussions, and what happened is I feared for my livelihood. That was how I was going to make my career and my money; and so I started figuring out how to essentially fake my way through the concussion protocol.”
After figuring out what they were going to ask and what symptoms they were looking for, Tellgren began slipping through the cracks. Instead of taking necessary time to heal, Tellgren would rush back into the gym, making subsequent concussions easier and easier.
The decision to push through head trauma caught up with him quickly. Studying, reading, concentrating in general, became impossible. Nausea, sleep and depression replaced school and wrestling. Tellgren would essentially disappear from the life he had made for himself for so many years.
“I started doing drugs and alcohol,” Tellgren said. “So pretty soon, after a year or so, I was an alcoholic and I was using a lot of drugs.”
Other trouble wasn’t far behind. When alcohol turned to drugs, drugs turned to jail, jail turned to living on the street. Tellgren was used to pushing himself to the edge every day, but unfortunately, the benefits of that mentality don’t translate from the wrestling mat to addiction.
For seven years, Tellgren was cycling through jail, homelessness and addiction. He was in treatment but ignoring the message, partying but having no fun. He was finally able to right the ship, but after all the years that had gone by and the damage he had done, the future, even in sobriety, seemed grim.
“I finally got a significant period of sobriety and I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’” Tellgren recalls. “I’m in recovery, I’m sober, I need to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Tellgren’s impossible dream was to go back to school and try to land back on another Olympic team. The names had likely changed, the environment may be different, but how great it would be if that was possible.
Tellgren reached out to Northern Michigan’s head coach, and after an impossibly long appeals process due to his abrupt exit from the school, initially, Tellgren was back.
“The fighting spirit, like the warrior mentality, never really goes away, especially at an elite level, and I just held onto it,” Tellgren said.
Back in school, back in training Tellgren was back in full swing of things….Almost.
The years of breaking down his body and inactivity had caught up with him. With a broken ankle and a broken wrist in two places, Tellgren was beginning to realize that his body and his spirit may no longer be aligned.
“I was trying to make my comeback and the Olympic Trials were coming back and there’s nothing you can do for a broken wrist,” Tellgren said. “I wrestled out of shape with a broken wrist until I could get myself ready to try to compete again and it just wasn’t happening. I just wasn’t in wrestling shape. My wrists were busted, my body was all beat up. In a combat sport you just can’t take seven years off and expect to just come back; it’s not going to happen.”
The position Tellgren found himself in would have been the most miserable, lonely place imaginable ten years earlier. Olympic gold was officially completely out of reach and would never be attainable again. After the last seven years he had, though, the fact that he was in a position to give it one more go at all was more powerful than the sad reality of a lost dream.
Tellgren may not be an Olympic wrestler, but he’s graduated from Northern Michigan and is back in Minnesota, coaching at a National wrestling camp. Even though his dream didn’t come to fruition, Tellgren isn’t “without a purpose.” It’s no longer about getting himself ready for the Olympics, as Tellgren would like to one day have a bigger coaching role.
Whether in Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado Springs or elsewhere, having a hand in creating the next crop of wrestlers to represent the United States will be more than enough. While the Olympic team and sports, in general, have taken a much more cautious approach at handling head trauma, maybe Tellgren can save the next wrestler pushing himself in the same way that he did years ago.
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