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Dean Barnard with his wrestling medals holding an American Flag

Back in 2002, I was living the high life — or so it seemed. A married father of two boys, I worked for a large farm-equipment manufacturer as the vice president of sales for North America. I’d amassed plenty of wealth and material goods, including a houseboat, Jet Skis, and a sizable home. Simply put, I’d acquired the vision of success I’d thought would bring me happiness.

Then tragedy struck: The corporate jet carrying the executives who had hired me crashed; everyone onboard was killed. Unfortunately, the new leaders who took over were determined to shake things up, and when the dust settled I was out of a job.

To make matters worse, my wife and I were headed toward a messy divorce.

As I started to build a new business in insurance sales, the mounting debt acquired from the divorce lawyer’s bills and business loans sent me spiraling into hopelessness. It was the first time in my life that things had really turned south for me, and I realized that I didn’t know who I was anymore.

Even back in high school, I was student body president, an Eagle Scout, all-state in everything. I didn’t know what it was like not to succeed.

With my professional and personal lives crumbling, I lost my will to continue. I had a plan to go into the garage, shut the door, and start the car — I was ready to say goodbye to it all.

Renewed Faith and Fitness

It was then, when I was in my deepest despair, that my sons urged me to seek help. At their recommendation, I started visiting a new church.

Although faith had been a cornerstone of my childhood, I’d lost touch with the community during my college years. By returning to my faith, I realized how preoccupied I’d been with myself and my success. It was time for me to put community at the center of my life.

My deeper relationships and connections helped me recognize the mistake at the root of my problems: I had always defined success by money and material things. Looking back, I can see how much of myself was lost when I was so focused on what I could gain.

When my veneer was stripped away, I had the opportunity to rediscover who I was and what was important to me — what I like to call my four Fs. It started with my faith. Two and three were the family and friends who helped me reclaim positivity and purpose in life. Then there was fitness, the fourth and final pillar.

Though I’d always worked out, my fitness and passion for it had declined in recent years. Eventually, it became clear that something was missing.

So with my faith, family, and friends supporting me, I decided to try to rediscover another piece of myself — my identity as a wrestler.

Of all my successes over the years, wrestling was the one I was most proud of. I was a state champion in high school and was recruited to wrestle at the University of Iowa, one of the best programs in the country. But when I got to campus, I prioritized partying over practice and quit the team my sophomore year.

Reconnecting with my faith inspired me to reconnect with wrestling, too — though at 66, I knew the return wouldn’t be easy. I had arthritis in my right foot, I was juggling three blood-pressure medications, and I’d spent 45 years away from the mat. For most people, a return to wrestling would have been unthinkable. But I’m not one to take no for an answer.

In 2015 I reached out to John Hanrahan, who I’d met at a Life Time club near Atlanta. He’d wrestled at Penn State (one of Iowa’s main rivals); we had given each other a lot of crap about our respective schools. When he told me about a Masters Wrestling league for older and veteran wrestlers, I didn’t hesitate.

Back on the Mat

I started working out twice a day, with a wrestling practice on Sundays. I got hurt a lot in the beginning — I left practices with bruised ribs and sore muscles. A lot of guys might have thrown in the towel, but I was committed. I’d thrown away my talents once before; I wasn’t going to do it again.

I got my butt kicked time and again in those first competitions. But I kept going.

In 2016 I competed in the United World Wrestling (UWW) Championships in Walbrzych, Poland. To my surprise, I did well and managed to beat a world champion from Germany. While a couple of the other guys gave me a run for my money (as well as a nasty cauliflower ear), I wrestled in the semifinals before being eliminated.

Returning home to have surgery on my ear, I had even more determination — I’d glimpsed redemption, and I was going to do anything I could to claim it.

With support from my new wife, Diane, I started attending Life Time’s group fitness classes to focus on building my strength and endurance. Since then, I’ve never looked back. Now I do morning classes and sometimes another in the evening.

My new approach to exercise has made all the difference in my wrestling. Since I started attending group fitness classes, I haven’t bruised my ribs once. I no longer feel sore after practice, and I haven’t suffered any major injuries. I’ve even experienced health benefits I hadn’t anticipated: I lost 25 pounds and was able to get off my blood-pressure medications; the arthritis in my foot is all but gone, too.

In December 2018 I had the oppor­tunity to compete in the over-60 bracket for the UWW Championship event in Las Vegas. Thanks to my rigorous training and vastly improved condition, my performance was leagues beyond what it had been in Poland.

In the last match of the tournament, I was down by three points when I managed to take down my opponent and put him on his back in the last 12 seconds. To this day, I’m not sure how I did it, but I left Las Vegas a world champion with the World freestyle gold medal and Greco-Roman silver medal in my pocket.

Since then, I’ve remained committed to my four Fs: faith, family, friends, and fitness. When the coronavirus caused gyms to close in early 2020, I set up a workout space above my garage to keep up with my training.

I’ve stuck close to my faith, which has brought people and places into my life that have made me more successful than I was before. I’ve also continued to find strength and support in my relationships, especially those with Diane, who’s my best friend, and my sons, who helped me get back up when I was at my worst.

I’m grateful that my struggles led me to reclaim who I was and who I’ve always been. I know that I’m made to wrestle. Wrestling has taught me about building strength, handling stress, and overcoming adversity; I wouldn’t be the same person without this sport in my life. While I’d never guessed I’d be here today — pursuing world championships at 70 years old, keeping my best fitness in decades — I couldn’t imagine life being any better.

Dean’s Top 3 Success Strategies

1. Prioritize fitness.

When you run into hard times — maybe you’re going through a difficult divorce, experiencing a job loss, or struggling to find your purpose — there’s nothing better than moving your body.

2. Find the positive, release the negative.

Stay close to the friends and family who support and uplift you, and allow yourself to let go of those who bring you down.

3. Give more than you get.

“I’m a big believer in Giver’s Gain,” says Dean. “When you give to others, it will come back. Even if it’s not a one-to-one exchange upfront, you’ll be a happier person when you focus more on what you can give to those around you.”

This article originally appeared as “Wrestling Adversity” in the July/August 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Dean Barnard

Dean Barnard

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