As a high school sophomore, Rudy James strapped on a helmet and pads and showed up for his first and last football practice. The U.S. Virgin Islands native hadn’t even signed up to play, and he had no idea the team already had labored through spring practices and two-a-days.
One look from the coach told James that his football career was over before it began.
Rudy James, right, was a standout wrestler at Montana State University-Northern before joining the Apple Valley High School coaching staff.
But as one door closed another opened. James wandered into the Long Beach Polytechnic High School wrestling room, was welcomed into a budding program and began a 25-year wrestling career that he continues today as associate head coach at perennial wrestling powerhouse Apple Valley High School and a veteran freestyle wrestler in the United World Wrestling Championships.
When James was in sixth grade, he moved nearly 3,500 miles from the island of St. Croix to Long Beach, California. No one in his family had experience in organized sports or knew how to get involved, but James was determined to join a team and use his natural athleticism. The wrestling team may not have been his first choice, but it was the first program to give him a chance.
“I got into wrestling right when the program started back up,” James said. “I feel it was really there for me. There were only five of us on the team and the others had experience, but I got really into it and became successful quick.”
James wrestled in seven matches as a sophomore and was junior varsity league champion. His coach, Robert Bundy, challenged him to find and compete in 100 matches in the offseason. James fulfilled the request and gained the attention of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, which christened the junior a rising star and declared him the preseason favorite to win state. However, James was upset in the California Interscholastic Federation Division III title match in the 152-pound weight class and fell short of the goal.
They called the week before school started, and I basically hitchhiked my way there from Chico, California. I didn’t even know where Montana was on a map before that."
- Rudy James, Apple Valley High School associate head wrestling coach
In his senior year, James and rival Ed Mosley of Calvary Chapel High School fought for the top rank in the 160-pound weight class in California. Mosley became a four-time NCAA Division I national qualifier and four-time All-American at Harvard University. James, despite suffering a sprained ankle late in the season, made it through sections and into state but lost his quarterfinal match and his chance to challenge Mosley for the state title.
James graduated from high school in 1994 and began his collegiate career at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California, where he was a two-time All-American and twice the California Junior College state runner up in the 150 and 158-pound weight classes. After junior college, he competed in National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics wrestling at Montana State University-Northern in Havre, Montana. His journey to Montana, and the NAIA, was as unorthodox as his journey into high school wrestling.
“There were some miscommunications in the recruiting process,” James said. “They called the week before school started, and I basically hitchhiked my way there from Chico, California. I didn’t even know where Montana was on a map before that. Being from California and Virgin Islands before that, Montana was a strange place.”
In 1997, James arrived in Havre five days before classes began. Within days he met his future wife, Jennifer.
“I was moving into my dorm room, and he happened to run by,” Jennifer said. “I was trying to move everything on my own. He came by and offered to help and ended up helping me clear out the entire truck.”
Name: Rudy James | Age: 40
Resides in: St. Paul, Minnesota
Family: Wife, Jennifer and daughter Emma (20)
Job: Senior site leader, General Electric (at Canadian Pacific); Associate head coach, Apple Valley High School wrestling
Interests: Coaching, traveling, motorcycle riding and fishing
After moving from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Long Beach, Calif., Rudy James joined the Polytechnic High School wrestling team and was touted as one of California’s top prospects as a junior and senior. He wrestled collegiately at Cerritos College and Montana State University-Northern and was a two-time NAIA All American. After moving to Eagan, Minnesota, in 2000, he began a 17-year tenure coaching youth and freestyle wrestling at Apple Valley High School. In 2015, he debuted on the USA Wrestling Veterans team after taking second in freestyle at nationals. He competed in the United World Wrestling Veteran World Championships in 2015 and 2016, placing seventh and second, respectively. James balances his wrestling with his career at GE Transportation and home life with his wife Jennifer and 20-year-old daughter Emma.
Despite being shocked by his first Montana winter, James – who had never been in snow or freezing temperatures before – took an interest in his electronics classes, grew close to his coaches and enjoyed the small-town setting of Havre. He made All-American and placed fourth in the NAIA his first year. The following season he red-shirted at Montana State and wrestled instead for Bear Paw Wrestling Club. He returned to wrestle for Montana State the next season and was All-American again despite chipping a bone in his elbow in the middle of the season.
After graduating in 2000, James was hired as a material specialist by GE Transportation and moved to Eagan, Minnesota, temporarily leaving Jennifer and their daughter in Montana. Alone in yet another new place, James used wrestling as a way to embed himself into his community.
“I was at the state fair, and I saw a guy with cauliflower ear,” James said. “I just went up and asked him where I could find some good wrestling.”
Luckily for James, the guy he approached was Osseo High School wrestling coach Ben Barton, who suggested the Eagan and Apple Valley high school programs. Without knowing the program’s history – which currently includes 24 state team wrestling championships, including the last 11 state Class 3A titles – James contacted former head coach Jim Jackson to see if he could work out with the athletes. Jackson, who coached the Eagles for 32 years, knew instantly James could strengthen his program.
“I’m always looking to improve my teams by surrounding them with great staff, and it turned out he was the perfect guy for us and our youth program,” Jackson said. “I could tell within the first year – the first month – that the kids were responding to Rudy. His passion for the sport showed through in his relationships with the kids. He cared about them and he made wrestling into something they loved.”
“I was at the (Minnesota) state fair, and I saw a guy with cauliflower ear. I just went up and asked him where I could find some good wrestling.”
- Rudy James
Even before James’ arrival, Apple Valley had already established itself as national powerhouse in wrestling. Thirty-two Eagles wrestlers have combined for 90 individual state titles since 1980, including six from Mark Hall (the only Minnesotan to accomplish that feat) – who trained under James. Eight of their 32 team state titles came before James arrived in 2000. Apple Valley is perennially ranked in InterMat’s Fab 50 and currently ranks 29th in the nation.
Initially, James was assigned to Apple Valley’s youth program, but within a year he was asked to take over the freestyle program as well. A freestyle specialist, James likes to wrestle on his feet and create various angles and positions that typical wrestlers aren’t used to seeing. According to Veteran World Championships teammate George Porter, this style is unconventional but works for James and makes for fun, exciting matches.
Jackson said he didn’t always subscribe to James’ methods, but thought it was good for the kids to be exposed to various styles. Former Apple Valley wrestler Lonnie Welsh seemed to benefit from James’ guidance more than most.
“He had a weird technique at first – kind of WWE style – which works sometimes, but not all the time in amateur wrestling,” James said about Welsh. “So I spent some extra time with him, and I was able to shape him and his technique.”
Welsh said he knew immediately that he could learn a lot from the “super-humanly athletic” James. The two wrestled at the same weight and regularly tested out moves with each other.
“He was one of the first coaches that would let me score if I was doing a move right,” Welsh said. “He didn’t let me win, but he rewarded me for good technique.”
Welsh, a sales representative at SportsEngine, placed sixth in the state at 160-pounds his senior year, and the Eagles won the state Class 3A team championship each of the years he was there. He later wrestled for Luther College and was a Division III national qualifier.
As James channeled his passion for wrestling into the Apple Valley program he became embedded in the tight-knit Minnesota wrestling community. He brought his daughter to practices, attended youth tournaments on the weekends and coached at the national level several times. Jennifer, a dance instructor, said after 17 years, keeping up with the kids James has coached is how they track time.
On a typical weekday, James punches in at GE Transportation around 5 a.m. and works until 2:45 p.m. He then drives from St. Paul to Apple Valley High School where he runs high school practice from 3:15 to 5:50 p.m. Following varsity practice, he oversees youth club wrestling until 8 p.m. and then returns home around 10 p.m. to be a father and husband. A typical weekend consists of traveling to high and youth wrestling tournaments early in the morning and returning home mid-afternoon to spend time with his family.
“I don’t know if this is unique to our marriage, but we our so passionate about what we each do that we make our schedules work,” Jennifer said. “We don’t exactly follow the nine to five work day and eat dinner when the neighbors do, but I knew when we got married wrestling was going to be part of our lives forever. It’s important for him to have that passion.”
James said that passion has never wavered because he gets to be a teacher, a wrestler and a student every day.
James continued wrestling through the Apple Valley Wrestling Club and, more recently, as a veteran wrestler in the United World Wrestling Championships. Veteran wrestling is divided into seven age-based divisions. The World Championships are held yearly for wrestlers over the age of 35. While James was eligible in 2012, he waited until 2015 to make his debut.
Last October at the United World Wrestling Championships in Poland, Rudy James, right, won the silver medal in the Division A Freestyle at the 76-kilogram (167 pound) weight class.
“When I turned 35 I was coaching youth and high school, had a full-time job, spending time with family – and sleeping once in awhile,” James said. “I never really got into it until after I got my Master’s degree in 2014, then things really slowed down and a window to do this presented itself.”
In his first World Championships in 2015, James traveled to Athens, Greece, and placed seventh in Division A Freestyle. The result wasn’t what had hoped for, but the experience opened his eyes to a whole new aspect of wrestling.
“I went over there and got a newfound respect for wrestling watching these guys,” he said. “They could be my father, grandfather, uncle – they are old guys scrapping on the mat. Over here, you get old and you’re supposed to lay down and die. Going over there taught me to reject that notion. I can take care of my body now and keep wrestling as long as they are.”
James, like many veteran wrestlers, stays in shape by training with and wrestling the students they coach. Occasionally, the U.S. veteran wrestling team convenes to share training techniques, but the athletes are largely responsible for their own regime.
To describe the toll wrestling takes on his 40-year-old body, James referred to a tweet by Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs: “Wrestling is hard on your body! It’s like doggy years. 1 year of wrestling is like 5 years in any other sport!”
Unlike at the Olympic and senior levels, American veteran wrestlers are rarely sponsored and have to pay their way into the World Championships. For his trip to Poland in 2016, James set up a Kickstarter campaign and set a goal to raise $3,500. The community he has devoted nearly 20 years to responded by contributing more than four thousand dollars in less than four months.
In October 2016, the 76-kilogram (167 pound) James earned the silver medal in Division A Freestyle. His wrestling family, including Jennifer and Lonnie Welsh, watched the live streams of his matches, which aired between 1 and 3 a.m.
For James, the silver medal only fueled his passion to return to the World Championships and win gold – not that he has a choice in the matter.
“Even if I wanted to quit I wouldn’t have the opportunity to,” James said. “My wife already told me I’m going to Bulgaria next year. The support I have right here, the people around me, youth parents, my coaches, friends, family – everybody I know contributed and that keeps me going.”