During his younger day, Jess Jensen was more invested in football rather than wrestling. Now, he gives a lot of his time to wrestling.
All five of his kids wrestle. The eldest, Braeden, placed sixth in his weight class at the most recent state tournament for Kapaa High School.
He’s been a wrestling coach for Kapaa High the last couple of seasons. But even in the offseason, he’s involved with wrestling programs outside of high school.
He’s witnessed first hand how his kids benefited from wrestling, and he believes Kauai’s youth could benefit as well.
Jensen, a native of Utah, met with The Garden Island and talked about his kids in the sport, how he’s come to coach and why he believes wrestling can prepare young people for the future.
You’re a wrestling coach. All your kids wrestle. Did you come from a wrestling family in Utah?
Actually, I was a football (guy). I loved football. Football was really my life when I was in high school. But I had a little brother was used to wrestle, so we got into it that way.
But what really happened was, we moved here in 2005. We had lived here for, I think, seven years. The economy went bad, so we went back to the Mainland for a few years to work.
We kept our house here. I that time, Braeden started wrestling. We lived in the Seattle area. He started wrestling and got really into it.
When we moved back here, they had just started. I think it was just the second year or third year the KIF had sanctioned year. He started wrestling his freshman year. He actually went undefeated his freshman year. He went to the state tournament that year, and he just got blown away. He went 0-2 and just got smashed as a freshman.
We were at the Blaisdell, and we were sitting in the top area. … We were watching the finals. They had three mats. The middle one was the championship match, another one was the third and fourth-place match, and the other was the fifth and sixth-place match going at the same time. … I could see he wanted to (get there). He had a goal to place at the state tournament. At that point, I told him I would do anything I could to help him get to that point.
Five kids, and they all wrestle. What got that ball rolling?
Well, Braeden started. I saw that wrestling’s a really good sport for kids. I see it teach a lot of really good lessons. Most of them really love it. I have a daughter who’s not as crazy about it as the others. But I really encourage it for them because it teaches them great lessons. That’s kind of what’s got it going.
The littlest, Dane, he’s watched Braeden since he was born. Even when he was a baby, he’d roll around and pretend he was wrestling.
So, how did you involved with the program at Kapaa High?
Like I was telling you, I was sitting at the tournament. I could see he really had a goal. He told me he wanted to place at the state tournament. I could see that he had a passion. It was more than just a kid saying he wanted to do something. I could see that he really wanted it. So, I promised him I would do anything I could to help him when we were sitting in the Blaisdell that day.
That first year, I thought it was just going to be that I was going to pay for him to go to the camps and clinics, try to help him that way. But after that first year, he had a really bad sophomore year. At that point, I decided to see if I could get involved a little more. That’s when I got involved into coaching.
You said that you don’t have much wrestling experience yourself. How tough was it to learn stuff and then teach it?
It was really tough. But (KIF tournament director Mac Pigott) over on the Westside, he brings a lot of people in that offer clinics. I attended a lot of those, and I have a lot of friends on the Mainland that coach. I would pick their brains a little bit and see what I can do to learn.
The U.S. men’s national freestyle coach, his name is Bill Zadick. He’s put a lot of stuff online, which I pore over. I like his philosophy about wrestling. … For example, he talks about not giving up on a shot. Once you shoot, if they sprawl on you, keep working to get that shot. He talk about if our opponent shoots, we’re looking for scoring opportunities. We can our defense into offense. Things like that.
That first year coaching, how big was the learning curve?
That first year, I sat back and let (co-head coach Larry Richardson) coach quite a bit. This last year, I became a lot more heavily involved.
There was also a lot of things to learn, which I feel we’re getting a handle on, as far as the weight monitoring. There’s a lot with how kids can lose weight and the right way to do it. … And then, there was a lot of things I learned about how they’re seeded when they go to the state tournament that are a big factor. I feel like we finally got our heads wrapped around that, and we can help the kids though this process. I feel I’m much more comfortable with that. So, there’s not just the coaching side. There’s these other things.
With everything coaching encompasses, how long did it take you to really grasp it?
Well, I’ve been doing it for two years. This is the first time I feel like I can coach the kids.
Last year was the first year we sent someone from the KIF to the seeding meeting. Coach Mac and I went to that meeting. That was the first year someone from the KIF went. The KIF, we just lived with whatever we were handed before. Going through the process of the seeding meeting, and I did a lot of studying prior to that meeting, getting up to date with the criteria. I feel a lot more comfortable.
I fought really hard for Braeden last year. He was in a good position. Now, I feel I’m in a good position to fight for our other Kapaa, not just Kapaa but our other KIF kids, to get them better seeding and navigate this whole system.
During the years you’ve been involved in KIF wresting, how have you seen it grow?
That’s a good question. Technically, I think we’ve grown a lot stronger, especially on the girls side. The girls side was one of the things that really surprised me. I grew up in Utah. Girls didn’t wrestle, and if they did wrestle, they wrestled against boys. They were just thrown in. Coming over here, the girls have their own league. My daughter Tessa, she’s going to be a junior next year. Her freshman year, my first year as a coach, she wanted to wrestle. I almost discouraged it just because I came from that mentality, but it’s been an absolutely great thing for her.
To get back to your question about the KIF, I think girls wrestling has really increased. We haven’t yet had a girl place at the state tournament. We really hope that changes soon. We got some really competitive girls coming up that we hope will change that. As far as KIF is concerned, that’s where I’ve seen the biggest growth.
The last few years, (Kauai High School alumnus Madison Leanio), he did really well and has gone on to college. Braeden had a good season. Matthew Tamanaha (Kauai High), he’s going to wrestle in college, and he’s doing really well. I think the technical ability is definitely increasing.
To back track a bit, you talked about Braeden’s freshman year watching at states. To see him place this year, how was that?
For him to get there, at the state tournament, he had to win his first two matches. He had set his sights on placing, which was his goal. He reached the semifinals and lost a tough match in the semifinals to a really good wrestler, and then went on a slide after that. We’re a little disappointed that he ended up sixth. We probably celebrated a little too much after he won that second match and knew he would place, but it was very exciting. It was an exciting time for us.
To see him on the podium, what was that like for you?
I was really proud of him. To see a kid — in this case it was my own kid — but to see any kid set their sights on a goal and works really, really hard to get there, I hope it’s a lesson he remembers for life. All sports teach good life lessons, but I think wrestling has a lot. I hope Braeden learned that lesson — that if you set a goal and work hard, you can get there.
For me, I’m just really proud. It was really fun to see that determination in him. I know how hard he worked. He ate, slept, everything he thought about was wrestling the last three or four years. To see him get on the podium was really exciting.
I’ve noticed that the past few seasons, there’s been that one wrestler the KIF banks on to do well at the state tournament. How much longer, do you think, we’ll see multiple KIF wrestlers place in any given year?
This year, I really hope we see it on the girls side. At Kapaa, we have to girls that are very competitive and will be seniors next year. It’s a long time until the season comes, but they have the ability and potential to place at the state tournament. We could see a girl break that ceiling, and we hope that happens.
On the boys side, we got some young ones coming up that look really promising. Hopefully this next year, we see a couple of kids competing at that level.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
As a father, I love wrestling because it teaches kids a lot of lessons. … Last year in the summer season, Dane, my littlest, was wrestling a kid that was a lot bigger and was older than he was but was brand new to wrestling. But there was no way Dane was going to win the match. There was too big of a size difference.
I watched Dane as he wrestled. He got down. He got on the bottom, and he kept moving and kept trying. He fought off several pins. Honestly, it was one of my proudest moments. I had a kid who, he should have been pinned but he just kept fighting. Those lessons, that’s what I try to teach my kids. This is life, really. Things can go bad, but you can just keep moving, keep working and keep fighting. They learn that on the wrestling mat. That’s why they’re all involved — because I think it teaches good life lessons.
I think a lot of kids in our community can benefit from that, and they do benefit from it. That’s why we spend all our time doing it — to try to give those kids those lessons. There is so much they can learn from the sport.