After run with sled dogs, Ted Schanen returns to Cedaredge, helps revive wrestling program
He lived in a tent on an Alaskan glacier one summer because his life had gone to the dogs.
Six years ago, after several years as a science teacher at Cedaredge Middle School, Ted Schanen responded to the call of the wild and decided to leave teaching in favor of training sled dogs for racing.
The career change was short-lived. Not because he and his wife, Lynn, didn’t like what they were doing. Rather, the loss of a loved one led them to re-evaluate where they should be at that time.
Within a year the Schanens were on the road back to Cedaredge, where Ted resumed teaching, this time at the high school, and at the request of the Delta School District he tackled the task of saving a near-dead Cedaredge wrestling program.
“I told Ted, ‘If we’re going to save this, we need someone like you,’ ” said Todd Markley, the Cedaredge High principal at the time and now an assistant superintendent for the school district. “We called him and said, ‘What’s it going to take to get you back here?’ “
Five years later, the revival Schanen has wrought is no less than sensational. He inherited a program that had four wrestlers returning, and at that time high school wrestling had 13 weight classes, and now it has 14. This season, the program had 26 wrestlers, and 11 qualified for the Class 3A state tournament.
That opened eyes at the administrative level as Markley said, “Holy cow! For the first time since I can remember, we had to take a school bus instead of a van (to the state wrestling meet).”
Cedaredge obviously hired the right man, an intelligent, caring, philosophical man who never expected to be where he is now.
Schanen grew up in a wrestling family and was the youngest of four boys with an impressive run of success at Ozaukee High School in Wisconsin. A Schanen placed at Wisconsin’s state wrestling meet for 11 straight years, with Ted bringing home the final three medals.
Up until seventh grade, wrestling was Schanen’s love and all he wanted to do. But then his best friend introduced him to hunting dogs, beagles and coon hounds mostly, and Schanen found a second love, one that eventually led him to sled dogs.
“I worked with hunting dogs, but I dreamed of sled dogs,” Schanen said, adding the latter stemmed from the novel “Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod” by Gary Paulsen.
Dogs and the outdoors became therapy for him then and remain so.
In college, Schanen did an internship at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. That introduced him to Colorado, where he learned to cross-country ski and went winter camping every weekend, and when he left he had his first sled dog in tow.
The internship also planted the seed that brought him and Lynn to Cedaredge, where Ted accepted his first teaching job. And he made one thing clear when he arrived: He would not coach wrestling, because the season coincided with the prime time of year for training sled dogs.
But Cedaredge track and field coach Kirby Henderson talked Schanen into coaching distance runners.
“He told me, ‘I guess if I can train a sled dog, I can train a kid,’ ” Henderson said. “I’ll never forget that.”
And Schanen quickly learned something about himself.
“It was my first time coaching high school kids, and I just loved it,” he said. “It really made me want to coach high school, and wrestling was my expertise.”
By the time he’d resolved he could take time away from sled dogs to work with wrestlers, the opportunity to work for Lloyd Gilbertson of Caribou Creek Kennels in Michigan arose in 2008. Ted and Lynn, still young at 26 years old and without children, decided they could go through some lean years to get the experience they needed to one day run an operation like Gilbertson’s.
What the Schanens didn’t anticipate was the news they’d get around Thanksgiving that year. Ted’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t have much time left, and that led to another difficult decision. They said goodbye to sled-dog training and lived with Ted’s parents for his mother’s final two months.
After she died, Ted and Lynn thought they would stay in Wisconsin, where most of their families still resided. But an unexpected call regarding Cedaredge changed their thinking.
“The superintendent asked if I’d come back and take over the wrestling program,” Ted Schanen said.
As much as he wanted to stay in Wisconsin, he gave strong consideration to the fact the school really wanted him. And he got to thinking about what awaited him: Cedaredge’s wrestling program was on the verge of being cut because of a lack of wrestlers. That sounded like a challenge Schanen could embrace.
“The opportunity to build something from scratch,” he said. “Can I take nothing and turn it into something? ... That really appealed to me, and I loved teaching biology.”
So, it was back to Cedaredge, and Ted and Lynn had a few other plans to act upon.
One, buy a house. After living in a tent and three different basements during the previous year, they wanted their own home.
Two, raise a family. Their sled dogs had been their kids to that point, but it was time for actual children. Now, they have two sons, 3-year-old Sterling and 1-year-old Fritz.
And when school started in fall 2009, Ted got busy recruiting wrestlers and trying to change a culture.
“He was walking the halls asking every kid, ‘You wanna wrestle? You wanna wrestle?’” recalled Brandon Milholland, Cedaredge’s football coach, who had a similar turnaround to orchestrate with his program.
Schanen implemented a code: Train hard and live right. Now his wrestlers wear T-shirts that say: Live the code.
Rather than lament the lack of interest in the sport that permeated the school, Schanen got creative. The wrestling program gave away T-shirts at home events, and sometimes more lucrative items, such as iPods.
He talked to students about coming to the Bruins’ dual meets and having fun while supporting their classmates. And Schanen emphasized the fun factor when he came up with the Brotherhood of Uncommon Men, whose creed is: We don’t choose to be normal. We choose to be different.
“Kids I had in class who I knew were crazy and friends of wrestlers, I gave them outrageous clothes to wear, and they ran all over the place at our home duals,” Schanen said. “Sports, it can’t just be about the outcome. It has to be about the development and fun.”
People started changing the way they thought about wrestling.
“It just became a show,” Schanen said, “and all of a sudden everyone sees wrestling and says, ‘Holy cow! That’s kind of cool.’ ... Now we pack the place.”
The number of wrestlers has grown because Schanen learned a lesson he’ll never forget in his second year as coach. After working hard to get wrestlers out for the program during his first year, he assumed those first-year kids all would return. Instead, numbers dipped, and he figured out why.
“I realized I hadn’t talked to them,” he said. “It’s still a relationship business. I needed to let them know I wanted them out for wrestling. That’s what they wanted: to know they were wanted.”
Just like the teacher who said yes to coming back when he knew Cedaredge High School wanted him.
Wrestling participation is healthy at the high school level because Schanen also has been building the programs in the lower levels, such as the middle school, where he coaches football, and the pee-wee level.
Word of mouth from wrestlers has brought new people to the program, too. Peter Williamson, who wrestled in the state tournament this year as a senior, was one of them.
“Just his attitude and motivational abilities, he made a lot of kids want to come out for wrestling,” said Williamson, who added he was thinking about playing basketball in high school, but, “The class ahead of me said (Schanen) was really awesome, and I decided I’d wrestle with my brother (Samuel) for a year. Once I did it, I loved it.”
Markley can provide another example. His son Drew is in the eighth grade and 6-foot-1, and Dad is thinking Drew’s going to make a fine basketball player with that size, except for one thing: “He thinks he wants to be a wrestler.”
Markley said Drew went to a tournament once with Schanen and lost every match, but Drew said he was having fun and getting better each match. Now, Markley added, “He’s won every match in the middle school season.”
Milholland marvels at how Schanen relates with kids, not just his wrestlers, but every student he encounters.
“He knows every kid in that building and how to connect with them,” Milholland said. “He’s going to help every kid feel better and feel important.”
Williamson can relate.
“If you’re having a bad day,” Williamson said, “he can talk you up. He focuses on your strengths, makes you feel you can do well and do better. He keeps it light, cracking jokes, just like being one of our best friends.”
Schanen believes positive communication with people yields better results. It certainly has paid dividends in the wrestling room.
This year’s 11 state qualifiers almost matched the previous four years combined. Schanen’s first season yielded two state qualifiers (the top four finishers at the regional advance to state). His second season produced three, the third season brought four, and the fourth season brought five.
The Bruins had just one wrestler who placed at state this year: Sophomore Austin Todd finished sixth. The next step in the rise of the program will be to generate more top-six finishes at state and eventually state champions.
The belief that those will come is rooted in the knowledge Schanen is invested in the youth of Cedaredge.
Williamson called the wrestling program’s turnaround “kind of amazing” and added, “It was inevitable. All the work he puts in ... he works on building the program up from every level.”
This season was satisfying for Schanen for reasons beyond the obvious: He had just one wrestler who was new to the sport; the first week of practice was like picking up from the last practice the season before; and week to week his wrestlers got better.
When the postseason arrived, Schanen said, “They’re as excited in the last week of the season as they were in the first week.”
He also looks at this year’s senior group and expresses great pride. They stuck it out. They became better wrestlers. They became better people. He knows all of their stories, and he’s sad to see this group go. So much was accomplished.
Perhaps the best example is Ty Morton, who as a senior qualified for state for the first time. Morton came out for wrestling as a freshman, “didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body” and lost every match, Schanen said. To see Morton achieve that state berth brought immeasurable gratification.
“Wrestling really transformed his life,” Schanen said.
And he added, “You don’t get to see that with dogs.”
But there’s still a place for dogs in his life. He and Lynn have three sled dogs, all female Alaskan huskies: 5-year-old Juno and 1-year-old sisters Cinder and Sandy.
They come from excellent stock, Schanen said, adding, “Our young dogs have as good a breeding as you can get. ... Even if I don’t race, I still want the best dogs.”
And if he never races competitively, “but me and my family can go out in winter time with the dogs, I’d still be happy,” Schanen said.
But it might also go beyond recreation, as he said, “As I get older, there are races I want to do.”
He said he trains his dogs keeping in mind “things I want them to be able to do five years from now.”
And as great as teaching and coaching are, there may come a day again when his life will go to the dogs.