Undefeated: Life lessons from a champion that never lost

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This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

During my 23 years at the Denver Post I read prep sports about as much as I read tire ads. I read Neil Devlin’s column about prep issues, and that was about it. In more than two decades as a Post sportswriter, I covered one high school basketball game, one baseball game, one swim meet and one track meet. I attended two football games. Preps were an inaudible blip on my sports radar.

However, one slice of Colorado’s prep sports scene became a giant gong. He transcended sports in the state. He made me flip past the Nuggets coverage, the Buffs and Rams news and even my own stories. I burrowed through the mountains of agate type amongst the box scores and greyhound results, always looking for one name: Kyle Sand.

In the winter of 2004, Arvada West High’s Kyle Sand was on the verge of history. Sure, history is made in sports every day, but the astonishing accomplishment he steamrolled toward turned even grizzled, middle-aged scribes like me into panting observers. The state of Colorado has had 19 four-time state wrestling champions. But his streak was different. He was about to become the only four-time state champion…

…never to lose.

Think about that. Go four years of high school, countless matches against everyone whose career – heck, whose life – would be validated by beating Kyle Sand. Yet he never walked off the mat without his hand raised. These numbers will go down in Colorado sports fame: 125-0. That was his four-year record. Making it more remarkable, unlike all but one of the other “four-timers,” Sand did it in the higher weight classes. He won it at 160 pounds in 2001, 171 in 2002 and 189 in 2003 and ’04. That means he was beating older, more mature wrestlers when he was 15 and 16 years old.

Said Jim Hafke, his high school coach at Arvada West: “He was kind of like a manchild.”

What happens to a manchild when he grows up? No, he never lost on the mat. But he learned how to get up off of one.

***

The building of the Perfect High School Wrestler began when he was 7 years old. His father, Dale, who wrestled at Westminster High, had him in every tournament around Colorado. By the time he was a freshman, Hafke said, “His technical knowledge was beyond his age.”

Physically, he came right out of central casting. Big for his age and naturally strong without building a second home in the weight room, he was also extraordinarily quick. As a linebacker, he led the state in tackles his senior year while practicing wrestling all fall. Said Ron Granieri, his summer coach and now head coach at Arvada West where Hafke is his assistant, “For an 189-pounder, he moved like a 106-pounder. He was just amazing.”

During his senior year, Sand had a personal trainer to help with diet and conditioning. By the time he was a senior, “He was like a grown man wrestling high school kids,” said Arvada High’s Tim Sexton, his rival that season.

Sexton had the unfortunate timing to grow into the 189-pound class for that 2003-04 season. Sexton went 34-5 that season with 32 pins and earned a scholarship to Northern Colorado.

All five losses were to Kyle Sand.

“There’s a number of things that separated him,” said Sexton, who now runs a State Farm insurance office in Thornton. “I’d definitely say he was much more mature. A lot of that comes from having great coaches. He had excellent coaching.

“The other part, he was incredibly intense and in your face the entire match. He never got tired. He was in amazing shape. A few of our closest matches he outlasted me. I felt I was in good shape.”

So how do you slay Goliath? Wrestlers aren’t allowed slingshots. Teammates can’t help. No one at Arvada could compete with Sexton, either. Only ideas helped. Sexton had one.

“My game plan was to try and wear him down,” he said. “He was tough to keep up with because he moved so much. He was constantly moving, almost like jumping around. It was hard to get the guy stationary. My game plan was to tie him up with underhooks, overhooks, whatever it took to get him on the mat, work his back, work his head. But he was extremely explosive. That’s what makes this difficult. It’s hard to get ahold of someone who’s that explosive without putting yourself in jeopardy.”

For the record, Sand did almost lose – like his very first match. In his first match as a freshman, he trailed a kid from Grand Junction at the Heritage Invitational. In fact, he trailed 10-4. Sand couldn’t get the kid on his back, so he kept letting him go and taking him down, trading a one-point escape for a two-point takedown.

“[Sand] was close to getting pinned and he got off the mat,” Hafke said. “Then the third time he wrestled him, Kyle just beat him up. He broke the kid’s spirit.”

He beat Rampart’s Dustin Robinson, 5-4, to win his title his freshman year. In his junior year he went overtime with Jeff Dunlap, who wrestled for Granieri at Standley Lake High. That’s about the whole list of near losses.

“Every time he had a close match with somebody and then wrestled him again,” Granieri said, “it was destruction.”

Then it came. The streak. His senior year arrived and every eye in the wrestling-mad state of Colorado watched Sand’s progress like a broker following the NASDAQ. Hafke eased the pain as best he could.

He barred the media from him. I kept waiting for an insightful story on the guy but was reduced to following him in tiny type like everyone else. Hafke made the decision based on anecdotal evidence from a pretty good wrestler himself, Dan Gable.

Hafke graduated from West High in Waterloo, Iowa. That’s Gable’s alma mater. Gable never lost his entire college career at Iowa State until the 1970 NCAA title match when he lost to Washington’s Larry Owings, 13-11. The loss left the wrestling world stunned and Gable crying on the victory stand as Owings hovered one step above him.

Hafke met Gable at a University of Iowa Wrestling Camp and will never forget what he said about the Owings match: “I probably should’ve spent more time worrying about the match and less time talking to the press.”

As Sand toppled his opponents like dominos, some coaches wouldn’t even allow their 189-pounder to step on the mat with him, preferring to forfeit. Spectators would cheer for Sand’s opponent without even knowing who the opponent was. He’d wrestle three times in regionals and not wrestle more than a minute combined.

The state remembered the last time a wrestler was on the threshold of the unthinkable. Three years before, Pomona’s Tom Clum was 148-0 going into the title match of his senior year. With 10 seconds left, he led Wasson’s Brett Roller 12-8. Roller threw Clum on his back and won, 13-12.

So it arrived. Feb. 19, 2004. Sand stood 124-0 and one win away from becoming Colorado’s first undefeated, four-time state champion. Only one person stood in his way.

Tim Sexton.

They were familiar with each other more than just on the mat. Their mothers worked together for the City of Westminster. Dale Sand coached Sexton when his father wasn’t there. Their older brothers, Nate Sexton and Chris Sand were friends. They wrestled together in Westminster’s youth organization.

And in the previous four matches, Sand never pinned him. In fact, in a dual meet at Arvada West, Sexton led going into the third period, 3-2. But Sand scored a reversal and won, 4-3. Maybe Sexton learned something with each loss. Maybe the shoulder injury Sand nursed would slow him.

Then again, maybe it won’t snow in Colorado. Sand won their fourth match, 12-5. The final wasn’t close, 9-0, and the packed Pepsi Center roared.

“I just got kind of started going downhill,” Sexton said. “I think internally I was feeling like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to be able to beat this guy. The third time wrestling him I gave it everything I had. I thought I had a good game plan and I still couldn’t pull it off. I think he got in my head.

“It was my first time in the finals. And I worked out way too hard before I went out there. I killed myself before and I got there and I was shaky and not ready to wrestle.”

I remember reading the story the next day and, his media ban lifted, reading Sand’s comments for the first time. A legendary Colorado athlete is heading to the bright lights. Never a recruiting junkie, I was more anxious to see what college wrestling power would sign him more than I was about where any high school football star went. He’s a 125-0, four-time state champ from a really good wrestling state. Let the recruiting war begin. Then, a few weeks later, I read a note in our paper.

Kyle Sand was headed to North Idaho College.

***

He opened the door in Wheat Ridge and his smile filled the doorway as much as his frame did. Sand, 31, now weighs 220, well above his last college weight class of 197. Now six years after his last competitive match, he still looks as if he could throw a whizzer or two.

Wearing a gray Colorado Mesa University wrestling T-shirt and black shorts, his muscular frame doesn’t look as if it carries any fat, despite the ice cream maker his wife bought. He’s grown a neat beard and stylish moustache. He looks wise beyond his years, as mature off the mat as he was on it.

He was at his mom’s house before attending a friend’s wedding. His 2-year-old daughter, Harlow, played quietly in the background. His 4-year-old son, Beckett, and wife, Gretchen, were on their way.

He’s staying in shape coaching twice a week at Colorado Mesa in Grand Junction where he’s a youth correctional officer at Grand Mesa Youth Services Center. It’s part of the Department of Youth Corrections, a good place to use his physical education degree, not to mention wrestling skills to break up the occasional fight.

“It’s essentially a different type of coaching,” Sand says. “It’s coaching kids for life. I’m relating the experiences I’ve had and mistakes I’ve made in trying to help those kids to be as successful as they can be.”

Sand stands in front of teenage murderers, hardened drug dealers and thieves and tells them this: You can get thrown out of high school your sophomore year, have poor grades nullify your sure shot at a Division I scholarship and lose your best friend to a heroin overdose. Yet you can still become a two-time college national champion, graduate, land a fulfilling job, have a fledgling coaching career, be blissfully married to your college sweetheart and have two great kids.

This is how the Kyle Sand story went from potentially “Down and Out in Arvada” to “Happy Days.” During a long interview, he seemed as at peace as a retired grandfather. His smile rarely disappeared. He had no regrets, no bitterness.

I asked him if he has more appreciation 12 years after the feat.

“I do,” he said. “I still think of it to this day as something that I can’t believe happened. I had an appreciation for it then just because of the pressure and the limelight of it. For a high school kid to be in the paper that much is very surreal. You don’t think that’s going to happen when you start your freshman year in high school.”

We talked about motivation and fear. Milestones can be soul crushing. Roger Maris lost hair chasing Babe Ruth’s home run mark. Maris was 27; Sand was 17. Not surprisingly, the public thought about the streak more than he did.

“It was just the love of the game,” he said. “I loved wrestling. It’s that high of winning. It’s not the medals. It’s the actual process of it. Putting in the work and seeing the results. That’s the best part.”

Truth be told, Sand did lose in high school. It came in summers during national freestyle and Greco-Roman tournaments. It’s stepping up into an elite class few high school wrestlers experience. However, he still made All-American in the prestigious Fargo Junior Cadet Nationals.

Occasionally he was even – God forbid – pinned!

“It definitely kept me humble,” he said. “I don’t think it affected me mentally. You just have got to take it as a learning experience. The best things I’ve learned about life that I took from wrestling have come from losses.”

His biggest losses, however, came off the mat. His toughest opponent was Arvada West High School. All the mistakes he made on the mat don’t combine to one silly mistake he made off it. During his freshman year, he got in trouble; a kid being a kid. Sand didn’t want to go into details. Neither did Hafke.

“Just say ‘vandalism,’” Hafke said. “Let’s just say he made a poor choice.”

Arvada West kicked him out before his sophomore year. So all the time I was reading “Arvada West” next to his name in the paper, he actually wasn’t attending Arvada West. He was up the road at Foothills Academy, a private school with about 200 students and no athletics.

“He was upset, upset, upset,” Hafke said. “All his friends were here. I held his hand and talked to him for an hour. He was devastated.”

As Sand said, he learned more from his losses than his wins. At Foothills, he was not only able to keep wrestling for Arvada West but received individual attention in class he never got at the public school.

“I got myself in trouble and had to pay the consequences,” he said. “It’s the same stuff I’ve tried to teach these kids at the youth services center: Learn from your mistakes. But it turned out to be a blessing I ended up at Foothills. I made a lot of good relationships with teachers and friends.”

Despite the new emphasis on academics, his grades weren’t improving. His test scores were weak. They were a bigger red flag to Division I schools than the transfer. He received a lot of initial interest. North Carolina State and Oklahoma wrote him. But they looked into his academics and never wrote again.

One time he received a letter from Harvard.

“He didn’t even open it,” Hafke said. “He just said, ‘Yeah, right.”’

But he did get another letter. He opened that one.

North Idaho College.

***

When I read the notice in the paper, I chalked it up to another great high school athlete who lost his way, another kid trying to pick up the pieces in the scrap heap of his sport. I could not have been more wrong.

North Idaho College is the Alabama football of junior college wrestling. In the picturesque, lakeside town of Coeur d’Alene, North Idaho has won 14 national titles, 13 coming from 1974-2003. It’s often the lone JC invited to major Division I tournaments.

Granieri’s son, Steve, won a national title there and raved about the experience. So Sand went north, ready to treat the JC wrestling world as he did the Jeffco Conference.

He didn’t even make the first team. He lost a wrestle off. The guy who beat him, Josh Edmondson, went on to win nationals and Sand wound up redshirting.

“Not that I didn’t work hard, but it taught me to work even harder,” he said. “It taught me about teamwork, being in a room and building relationships with guys you’re competing against. I didn’t have that in high school.”

The next year he lost again to Edmondson. Then, one night in a home match against Portland State, Sand sat in the stands eating a pizza. Half of Portland State’s team was out sick and the meet needed matches. His coach told him, “Go put on a singlet. You’re wrestling Jake.” At the time, North Idaho’s Jake Kellestad was the No. 1-ranked 197-pounder in the country.

Sand won. The coach told him, “Hey, we’ve got to get you in the lineup.” He bumped Kellestad up to heavyweight, where he won nationals, and Sand wound up fourth in the country at 197. He won the 2007 national title the next year.

Now the four-year schools showed interest. Oregon State talked to him. So did Division II St. Cloud State. But Sand’s vision was bigger. He wanted to train at the Olympic Training Center. The London Olympics were three years away. Who knows? At the least, he would improve as a wrestler.

But he got hit from behind in a fender bender, badly injuring his lower back muscles. He moved home with his parents, rehabbed and sat out the 2007-08 season. He worked packing goods and shipping them off from the Navis Pack & Ship warehouse in Commerce City. Building boxes in Commerce City is a long ways from the bright lights of a wrestling mat. He wasn’t crazy about being 21 years old and still living at home.

Jason Ramstetter, the coach at Adams State, had built a relationship with Sand during his glory years. He told him at Arvada West that if everything fell through, he would always have a spot in Alamosa.

“I actually didn’t consider myself in the fight,” Ramstetter said.

Four years later, Sand was at Adams State picking up where he left off in junior college. He moved to Alamosa in May of 2008 and spent that summer chipping off the rust. The rust uncovered another masterpiece. He won the 2009 national title, going 21-10.

“Moving to Alamosa is probably the greatest decision I ever made in my life,” he said. “I made amazing friendships there. I met my wife there. Both my kids were born there.”

But Sand’s life was never going to be as easy as beating some chubby freshman from Fossil Ridge. During his senior year, right before Christmas, he had just won the Reno Tournament of Champions. He picked up his cell phone and went through the routine of scanning the messages. One decked him more than any wrestler did.

One of his best friends, whom he’d known since they were tykes, had just died of a heroin overdose in Denver. He was 23. Sand was never the same. He did make it to nationals but went two and out, losing to a guy he’d beaten twice during the season.

Suddenly, for the first time, Sand thought wrestling wasn’t life. It was just, well, wrestling.

“I lost a little motivation,” he said. “I think I let my emotions get the best of me. The lesson learned is life throws curveballs. It gets hard at times. It’s easy to give up. It’s easy to not care. In the end, it takes more courage to man up in those situations.”

Soon, he had no choice but to man up. His wrestling career was over.

***

He took a job as Ramstetter’s assistant coach. Sand recruited. He trained. He wrestled. “He could’ve been as good a coach as he was a wrestler,” Ramstetter said. However, manhood requires food and Division II assistant wrestling coaches cut weight without wanting to. In his first two years at Adams State he made $5,000 a year. His last two he made $15,000.

He had married at the end of 2012 and his wife was teaching third grade in Monte Vista. They had two young children. In June 2014 he took the job in Grand Junction and applied lessons he learned about mistakes and teamwork and motivation and dreams. He taught kids from broken homes looking down the pipe at years of detention how to get off a mat.

His unit has 27 kids, about the same amount as a large wrestling team. But he doesn’t wrestle. He’s not a security guard. He’s a guiding light.

“At times it’s very stressful and you go into it where you want to save all the kids,” he said. “They all need to be saved. But then after time you kind of realize that if you just help that one kid or see those one or two kids be successful, that makes the job worth it. You can’t save all the kids. Not all of them want to be saved.”

He wants to stay at the job while helping out at Colorado Mesa. Maybe that will morph into a coaching job that will put more than ramen noodles on the table.

Until then, he’ll look forward, not backward. The streak was big but maybe the mistakes he made, in the long run, were bigger.

“I’m very grateful for it,” he said. “To sit and wish I could go back to a time or wish I could redo things, everything happens for a reason. I ended up at Adams for a reason. I ended up at North Idaho for a reason. I was happy for everything along the way.”

Meanwhile, the streak may live forever. So will the memories of everyone who witnessed it. Take Jeff Dunlap, the Standley Lake wrestler who took Sand into overtime his junior year. At state, Sand walloped him. But as Dunlap walked off the mat, he told Granieri, “You know, Coach, I respect Kyle because I got a chance to wrestle an undefeated kid in high school.”

Said Granieri, “Kyle, even though he beat some kids, he touched their hearts at the same time.”

John Henderson retired to Rome in 2014 and works part time as a freelance writer.

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