From July 27 to August 6 of this year, Bucknell head wrestling coach Dan Wirnsberger traveled to the Ukraine with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). While in Melitopol, he helped direct a camp for youth, high school and college wrestlers and ran seminars for area coaches of all sports. Wirnsberger, who previously traveled to Russia in 1999 with Athletes in Action, sat down to talk about his experience, which he said was rewarding, eye-opening and humbling all at once. 

Q: How did you find out about the opportunity?

A: I was asked by FCA Wrestling if I wanted to go on a mission trip to the Ukraine, and I committed to doing that. The goal was to support the FCA team in the Ukraine as it extended its ministry into the east, where it hadn’t been before. Before I was asked to go on this trip, I had seen the FCA’s work in the U.S., but I wasn’t aware of its impact globally. To actually be a part of it and experience it firsthand was eye-opening for me.

Q: What was it like working with the Ukrainian coaches?

A: Our goal was to teach them the methods of 3Dimensional Coaching, where you go beyond teaching the physical components of the sport. We wanted them to understand how important it is to make a meaningful connection with their student-athletes. It was gratifying that the coaches were so receptive to this new style of coaching. In the beginning, they told us that coaching was about discipline. So, for them to be open to getting to know their athletes on a personal level, when that was such a foreign concept to them, was significant. By the end of the week, they understood the importance of building that connection so they could help their student-athletes gain confidence and show them they have a purpose outside of their sport.

Q: You were able to make many meaningful connections with the coaches. How about the student-athletes?

A: I met an 11-year-old boy named Seroga who had lost his mother on July 8. I was able to make an immediate connection with him because I had lost my dad a few days before I left for the Ukraine. While our experiences were a little different because I spent many years with my dad, I was able to relate to him, and we ended up spending a lot of time together; we ate together, went to devotion together, and I got to know him over the next few days.

Then, he came in one morning and gave me a picture he had drawn. It broke my heart that this 11-year-old boy was that thoughtful. So, on our last day there, I sat down with him and shared more about my dad and presented him with a gold cross necklace to remind him to hold tight to his faith and know he had a purpose. The great thing is we’ve communicated over Facebook since I’ve been back in the States, and he’s been talking about how he wants to do well in school and learn English so he can better communicate with me. That’s what these trips are all about: to try to connect with people and try to serve where you’re at. Hopefully, he can get something out of it and become a better person for it.

Q: What did you learn from your time in the Ukraine? 

A: While we were in Melitopol, we were 80 miles from the front line of the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. But the people were so friendly to us; they took care of us, fed us beyond what we could possibly eat and went out of their way to show off their city and culture to us.

When I was in Russia with Athletes in Action, I remember there was no upkeep of the buildings, roadways or landscaping. There were also no toilets. The only difference I saw in the Ukraine, 18 years later, was they had plumbing. But everything else looked the same as far as the lack of infrastructure, landscaping and care and maintenance of the buildings and roadways. They just don’t have a lot over in the Ukraine, and even the poor amongst us in the U.S. would be considered rich there.  But they’re very grateful, friendly and happy people, and that was striking to me.

The people are happy through relationships, and they don’t get caught up in smaller details that aren’t all that significant. Like if something happens to your car, we think it’s the end of the world. Over there, they would just love to have access to a car. They don’t have the luxuries we have; I watched a lot of people wear the same clothes the whole week, and it made me really grateful for everything I have.

Q: Do you plan to impart the lessons you learned to your student-athletes at Bucknell?

A: I think so. We always try to get that message across that it goes beyond the win or the loss here. We want our student-athletes to serve something greater than themselves and give back to the sport or to their community. We also talk a lot about being thankful for what they have. They’re in an elite class of athletes who are able to wrestle at the Division I level, and they’re also at Bucknell, which is one of the most elite academic institutions in the country. So they have the best of both worlds, and we want them to be thankful for the opportunities they have here. We tell them not to let the opportunities they’ve been given slide away because these four years could help define the next 40 years of their careers. When they face challenges, because they will face challenges, they’re going to become better people through perseverance or knowing to reach out and ask for help if they need it.  

This Q&A originally ran in the program for Bucknell's football game against Holy Cross on Sept. 9, 2017.