Sports and family are two aspects of human life that can teach us so much about who we are and the need for virtue to authentically live our vocation and call to evangelize. Today, Jared Zimmerer chats with Corey Robinson, a former member of Canada’s National Wrestling Team who has served as both a national and provincial coach of Olympic freestyle wrestling. Corey brings knowledge and experience of using the culture of wrestling as an avenue to reach the periphery and embue the Christian ethic into the lives of those he coaches.
Corey, you’ve been a national wrestling champion, a husband of twelve years, an evangelist, and a passionate advocate for living a healthy and holy life. Can you fill us in a bit on your background and how it is you became so passionate about your faith?
I wasn’t always this passionate about my faith. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know what ‘passion’ even meant outside of my personal, earthly definition which was characterized by setting goals of achievement, popularity, status, acceptance and a twisted self-identity. Growing up, my family didn’t practice their faith. Thankfully they always modelled an openness to the existence of God (if even in the smallest of ways). It was important to them that I receive the sacrament of baptism. We always went to Mass on Easter & Christmas. More to ‘watch’ than to ‘worship’. I was able to attend Catholic schools throughout my childhood. Catholic schools were more of a geographical choice than an intentional decision to further my faith foundation. In reflection, I’m grateful for these experiences as I believe they helped to plant the seeds of faith.
It wasn’t until my married years (roughly 20 years in) that I truly began to rediscover the richness of my Catholic faith. My wife Kate and I journeyed together, albeit, with her in the lead. Like most marriages, things were often challenging. What made things dangerously challenging was my struggle with alcoholism and finding balance with all aspects of life. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint the exact moment where I came to fall in love with Jesus, but I can say without a doubt, that through genuinely allowing the Holy Spirit into my heart while praying a simple prayer and allowing Jesus to enter into my brokenness lead me to realize that Jesus loved me. Not because of what I do, but because of who I was created for. This prayer broke the bonds of my addiction, allowed me to see a glimpse of why I was created and healed my heart on the spot. This little prayer of “Jesus, I’m hurting. If you’re real, I ask you to help me to not turn left into this liquor store parking lot. Amen”. I’ve not taken a drink since. It will be 5 years this July. From that point, It has been pretty difficult to not be passionate for Christ’s mission when I was gifted with this extraordinary love. This saved my marriage and allowed me to begin to understand and work towards true intimacy as a Catholic man in today’s world.
What piqued your interest in wrestling as a young man and did you have any coaches or others who helped you along the path to become a National champion?
It was my late Father who introduced me to the sport of Olympic wrestling at the age of 11. He read in the local newspaper that the world’s best would be competing at the World Championships hosted in my home city of Edmonton, Alberta. I was a 65-pound, awkward, energy ball, having troubles directing my energy toward making healthy choices and setting goals effectively. (This is just a nice way of saying I was a trouble maker). Knowing virtually nothing of the sport, my father, also unfamiliar with the sport, thought maybe it may spark some interest in learning something new.
For a kid of such tiny stature coupled with an abundance of undirected energy, it was sort of odd that I came to immediately fall in love with what I witnessed and immediately set a goal to become an Olympic wrestler. I found a school team to join the very next year. ‘Godincidentally’, it was a Catholic school. This is where I received the sacraments of First Reconciliation, First Holy Communion & Confirmation. These seeds of Catholicism were planted, even though I didn’t realize the works of the Holy Spirit, nor the impacts I would be left with forever. I worked hard at achieving my goal of making Canada’s National team, and made the team for the first time in 1994. I competed for Canada until 2001. I was very fortunate to have had gifted coaches from a young age. Both my childhood coaches were Olympic-caliber and I was able to create a rock solid foundation in the sport from a young age into the high performance level. These mentors nurtured me on and off the playing surfaces and guided me into and through the many distractions that come with sport and life. Eventually, it was my goal to do the same for other athletes. After I retired as an athlete, I was fortunate enough to work full time as a coach at the Provincial and National level, working with and leading athletes to podium finishes on the world and Olympic stage. I retired from the sport officially in 2012 shortly after the completion of the London Olympics. Although, I remain present to the needs of the many athletes that I’ve had the honour of supporting over the years.
I know that another passion of yours has been helping troubled and abused youth work through many of the issues they might be struggling with. In a certain sense, you’ve discipled numerous teens towards living with purpose. What struck that passion and can you share with us some advice on how we can best help those who’ve suffered in similar ways?
I am very grateful to have been raised in a loving family environment. I had a working mom and a military dad growing up. They both had a wonderful way of raising my younger brother and I with love and nurturing balanced with a disciplined structure. When I was 19 years old I was asked to instruct a physical education curriculum of Olympic wrestling to a group of at-risk youth living in a long term lock up treatment center. It seemed they had troubles finding anyone willing to provide consistent and disciplined instruction to a group of youth with varying degrees of behavioural problems. I was given the opportunity to lead the group through a 3-month structured regiment of practical & technical knowledge of wrestling. At the end of the course, the executive director of the treatment center approached me and asked if I would consider working in the field of child and youth care. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it would become the start of a career that led to 12 years of learning how to live, learn & model my gifts to this specific group of youth in need.
You are also passionate about inviting youth into a relationship with Christ. How have you been able to use what you know in wrestling to garner interest in the faith?
At this point in my life I try to find any and every opportunity to minister to young people in ways of living out the virtues. My sport and coaching opportunities have been a tremendous way to reach out to people in ways that can be relatable to some in special ways. The sport of wrestling seems to be one of those sports that attracts the marginalized individual seeking purpose. It’s not a sport that draws a lot of attention or a big following, possibly due to the difficult physical and mental aspects of its nature. I’ve always welcomed anyone into a relationship with my sport and tried to bridge the gap between mental toughness and work ethic. As a man of God, I’ve sought out ways to link the physical with the mental and show young people involved in wrestling that we are created for worship. I share the understanding that our bodies are not separate from our minds and spirits and together they can use their athletic talents and abilities as a means of sacrifice and prayer, giving God all the glory in what they do. I point them in a direction of acknowledging that they are not the sum of ‘what they do’, but they are a beloved child of God and loved beyond measure in how they do it. Regardless of pass or fail.
As a married man for twenty years, I’m sure you’ve learned a lot, what has marriage taught you about being a man of God?
One of the greatest gifts I have is the gift of my wife Kate. My only regret would be not knowing early on that placing God at the center of my marriage would be the most important virtue to foster throughout my marriage. Allowing the Holy Spirit to take over in times of struggle has been paramount in understanding what true intimacy is in our marriage. Understanding that love is a choice and not a feeling has been a game changer in my ever growing relationship with my wife. Knowing that God created us so beautifully unique, not to cause frustration, but to compliment one another in order to worship Him as one in a marriage. It has taught me that praying together, lifting each other up in our gifts, helping to carry each other in our brokenness is what it means to live sacrificially. Each of us do our best to ‘die to self’.
If you could offer advice to our readers on evangelization and living life to the fullest, what would that be?
Loving people where they are is not only something that Jesus has called us to do, it is life giving to the human spirit. I do my very best to see the personhood of each individual put in my path. Knowing that they have dignity and have been loved into existence by the same God who loves me can be empowering when striving to love one another. Our world would tell us that living life to the fullest is measured by the ‘stuff’ of life. Stuff in the context of perishable things like accolades, money, power, status, awards, etc. Getting caught up in that will only draw you further away from connecting with people we are called to love. Embracing the dignity of each person in your life, especially the marginalized, is the best way I have figured out how to see Jesus manifest in my life. Embracing the brokenness in others can only be achieved if we acknowledge our own brokenness knowing that regardless of own powers we cannot love unless we allow ourselves to be loved.