Glenrock Wrestling’s Savior: With the future at stake, Elisson steps up to lead matmen

 Kjell Elisson

Coach Kjell Elisson embraces senior Cade Griffitts after the last match of Griffitts career at the state tournament. Elisson hugs every wrestler after every match and gives them words of encouragement.

(Joshua Clark photo) 
Joshua Clark,

This time last year the Glenrock wrestling team’s future was in peril.

After long time coach Nic Dillon left the program, many were not sure where it would go from there. There were rumblings about making the wrestlers go to Douglas to be a part of the Bearcats team.

Going into late November the coaching position was still vacant with wrestling season just around the corner. That’s where current coach Kjell (pronounced Shell) Elisson comes in.

“I was talking to [Shawn Huxtable] who is one of the basketball coaches at Glenrock and he mentioned that I should check it out,” Elisson recalled. “I interviewed with the athletic director Jim Downs and got offered the job the next day. It took me a while to actually accept it, but I realized if I didn’t Glenrock wrestling was probably going to go away and I didn’t want that. If it went to Douglas it probably would have never come back.”

Although this past season was just his first as a coach, Elisson has been around wrestling practically his whole life. Elisson was born in Jönköping, Sweden to a Swedish father and a Native American mother, but his family moved to Wyoming when he was an young, raising their son at the famous Double Diamond Ranch east of Dubois where his father Anders was the foreman.

Working on the ranch was the family business, and as soon as Elisson was old enough he was expected to contribute. His first memories are on the lap of his father driving a tractor. As he got older he was involved in almost every aspect of running the ranch, including fixing fences, planting alfalfa and haying.

“I got to grow up in one of the most beautiful spots in the world on an iconic ranch,” Elisson said. “It was hard. It was hot. It was cold, but I feel lucky and blessed. It was hard work but it was worth it, you got to see the end product of all of your work at the end of the day.”

Spending his formative years learning the value of hard work drew him to the sport of wrestling, which he began at the age of eight. Competing in the sport was made more difficult living in such a small community. The closest teams were an hour and a half away in Wind River, with other teams spread across Fremont County. In high school his team would travel up to eight hours to take on opponents.

Growing up wrestling in the 70’s and 80’s was a much different animal than it is today. There were few to no protections in regards to kids’ health.

“I reflect on it a lot now that I’m a coach,” said Elisson. “It’s so different now. The sacrifice is still there, but the mentality has changed so much since I was their age. The health and weight loss programs are so regulated now, which is a good thing. It keeps you from losing weight in an unhealthy manner. We used to roll ourselves up on the mat, wear rubber suits just to lose weight. If you were over an hour before a match you could stand on your head for a minute or spit in a cup and step on the scale.”

After graduating high school and spending a brief stint in college, Elisson continued working on the ranch he grew up on. At 22 he was the cowboy in charge of over 2,000 cows, living by himself in a cabin with no running water or electricity.

Eventually, the ranch was bought by Wyoming Game and Fish shortly after Elisson got married, so he threw his belongings into a truck and headed east into Idaho, where he became a firefighter.

“At that point if I saw the butt of another cow ever again it would be too soon,” Elisson said.

Firefighting is a common career field for ex-athletes. It helps fill the void of camaraderie and excitement left behind after an athletic career comes to a close, but it is a tough field to get into.

Once again, wrestling helped Elisson as he drew on the lessons the sport taught him to break his way into the field.

“There were a lot of times where I didn’t know I was using the lessons I learned in this sport but then I looked back and it was obvious that I did. Frankly to get the job I beat out a lot of people that were probably more qualified than me but I was tenacious and that’s what wrestling is. You bang your head on the door until it opens.”

He would work his way up the ranks, eventually being the Battalion Fire Chief and Fire Marshal in Jackson-Hole after moving back to Wyoming to help his father who was diagnosed with an Alzheimer’s type disease.

After retiring from being a firefighter he began working for Wyoming’s True companies in risk management and compliance, which is how he got to Glenrock.

By this point his sons Erik and Isak were 10 and seven and participating in USA Wrestling following in their father’s footsteps.

“At one of my kids’ matches in 2008, someone came up to me and said ‘hey if we don’t have enough refs we do the matches without scoring points are you interested in reffing,” Elisson said. “So I started reffing little kids and eventually got to be a high school ref. I always loved the sport so I enjoyed being involved again.”

His kids ended up going through the Glenrock program where Erik would just miss a state championship and the Isak won one, giving him insight as both a parent and a referee that would later help him in his coaching endeavors. Refereeing gave him a perspective few coaches in the state, or anywhere for that matter have. He knows what other refs are looking for and what exactly they’ll award points for, but more importantly, his style of coaching is directly connected to how he treated his own children after every match.

“I like to think I had some influence on my kids’ success,” Elisson said. “But as I reflect, the biggest influence I had was that I shut my mouth and let his coaches coach. I would just pep-talk them and then win or lose I’d give them a hug and say I love you.

“Now I do the same with the kids that I coach. It’s a cyclical effect. They know that it’s ok not to win but they also know that the coach expects the best from them and that if I get that, I’m happy whether we win or lose.”

That level of compassion and care he has for his athletes is the defining characteristic of his first year as a coach. He makes sure he does his best to cater to each individual athlete and do his best to find what motivates them, as well as get to know them and the problems they’re going through in life.

“Watching them has made me realize each one is their own person and has their own set of things that drive them,” Elisson said. “There’s a couple kids I can make wither with a frown and there’s other kids that I can boldface yell in their face and it’s not going to affect them. Coming in I didn’t realize how much of a psychologist you have to be to get the best out of these kids.”

“It’s like he wants to really be in the match with you,” senior Cade Griffitts said. “He tried to be more than a coach and like a father figure in our lives. Both him and assistant coach Don Flynn would tell all the wrestlers they loved us as we walked off the bus and it made me feel like if I ever needed someone in a time of need or help with whatever I was doing I could go to them.”

Flynn is a staple in Glenrock wrestling. He has been coaching in some capacity for 25 years now, and Elisson credits him for most of the actual technique coaching and helping him get through his first year. Flynn however, thinks Elisson should take all the credit for himself.

“He really was a natural,” Flynn said. “It didn’t take him long to find his groove. The hardest thing for him was the things most people don’t think about that comes with coaching. Eligibility, scheduling, leave times and communication but he picked it up quickly.

“The kids loved him and responded very well to him. I think they really appreciated his passion for the sport.”

The first year under Elisson has to be seen as a success for the Herders. After losing a group of state placers and a head coach, many teams would crumble. The Herders did struggle during parts of the season but ultimately had a good showing at the state tournament finishing 13th out of 22 teams in the 2A bracket, and placing four individual wrestlers.

“About halfway through the second day [of the state tournament] I was hit with the realization that the season is over,” Elisson said. “I started looking around at each one of the wrestlers and pulled everyone to the side and had a chat with them.”

That chat was different for the departing seniors. He wants them to take what they learned from the sport and use it to thrive in their lives post high school much like he did.

“I told (Cade Griffitts and Alex St. Gelais)that I want them to go and apply the lessons that they learned wrestling to the rest of their lives. Things like nobody cares if you win or lose but you, if you want something go get it.” The sport is important, but it always comes back to the kids for Elisson, and his biggest priority is letting them know he is there for each of them. “I hope that as I do this for a while and see seniors graduate and move on with their lives they leave knowing they can call me if they have an issue or just feel they need someone to talk to. Just because I was their coach in high school doesn’t mean I’m not their buddy or there for them when they get out."


Glenrock Independent

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