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Former wrestling champion finds love on the slopes

Now: Former Spokane area wrestler and wrestling coach Dan Hensley  spends his retirement as a member of the ski patrol on Mount Spokane. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Now: Former Spokane area wrestler and wrestling coach Dan Hensley spends his retirement as a member of the ski patrol on Mount Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

It can now be revealed. All the while that Dan Hensley was adding to his wrestling legacy as a successful coach at Clover Park High and Pacific Lutheran University, he was sneaking off to pursue another winter passion on Crystal Mountain.

Hensley, Spokane’s first high school wrestling champion while at Mead more than four decades ago, fell in love with skiing, a season that runs concurrently with his other passion.

The 64-year-old Panthers graduate and Washington State University All-American discovered the snow sport in the early 1970s.

He said his daughters, Leigh and Daena, were on the mountain in backpacks as infants and can’t remember not skiing.

“When I was coaching at PLU, there were times when I’d get back from Southern Oregon at 3:30 in the morning,” he said. “Then we’d drive up to Crystal Mountain, and they’d sleep in the camper and get up when they wanted to.”

He spent 24 years ski patrolling there and continues to do so today since his return home to be closer to family. The mountain didn’t merely come to Hensley, you see. Hensley went to the mountain. Three years ago he bought a condominium at Snow Blaze on Mt. Spokane and now that he is in semi-retirement, Hensley spends as many days patrolling the ski runs as he can.

Wrestling was in its infancy here when Hensley became a star for Mead. Pullman had had a couple of state champions, but the sport was primarily the province of the state’s central basin and western Washington. Henley’s size, or lack thereof, was conducive to a stellar wrestling career as both a competitor and Hall of Fame coach.

“My brother talked me into coming (to Mead) after school when I was in eighth grade,” said Hensley by cell phone last week while readying for a day on the mountain. “I was a little guy and remember I didn’t play football much. It wasn’t until my junior year I learned to hit hard.”

Warren Deprenger and then Cash Stone were the coaches. Hensley placed fourth as a junior and wore the 130-pound crown in 1962.

“That was back in the days of the (countywide) district tournament and you had to take top two to qualify for state,” Stone said. “It was a brutal way to get there.”

Hensley continued his career at WSU where he went undefeated his final two seasons and as a senior placed sixth at 160 pounds after reaching the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. The year before, a freak accident just before he was to leave prevented Hensley from participating in the national tournament.

“It was a weird, weird situation,” Hensley said. “I got smacked in the eye when I caught an elbow and it was paralyzed for four or five months.”

Deprenger had moved to Clover Park and hired Hensley to teach and coach, eventually as his successor. He spent 25 years teaching there and coached a state team champion in 1973 when five of his six entrants won state titles.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I think it’s only happened once since.”

Among other stops was eight years at PLU. He said he had 6 or 7 national placers and that it was his idea to medal eight state placers, today’s current format, when the college hosted a state tournament.

All the while, after his teams competed during the week or on Saturday, the Hensley clan would be on Crystal Mountain on Sunday.

“It was one of those things where you threw the family in the camper and went,” he said. “I don’t know how we did it.”

Hensley said he planned to teach 40 years, but his wife, Georgia, became ill for a time and they decided there were other things to do in life.

“My wife and I are traveling quite a bit,” he said. “We’re going on a ski patrol trip to Italy at the end of the month and will be gone for three weeks.”

Still, he returned to coaching one last time at Clover Park 2004-05, after being inducted into the Washington Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame in 2003. Hensley then moved here to be close to family, but he keeps his hand in both the sport and teaching when he gets a call.

If wrestling were right next door to Mt. Spokane, he said, “I would go from the slope to the mat.”