After prison release, state wrestler free to pursue Olympic dream

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 15, 2012 - 9:28 AM

Jordan Holm's wrestling aspirations became afterthoughts when he spent 6 1/2 years in prison for sexual abuse -- a crime the Northfield native says didn't commit. Now, he's competing for a spot in the Olympics.

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When Dan Chandler answered his phone on that April day in 2010, the number wasn't familiar. The voice, however, was. "Hey, this is Jordan," the caller said. "I was just wondering if you guys still have Greco practice."

Jordan Holm didn't expect his former coach to remember him. Years ago, Chandler had guided the Northfield native to a junior national title in Greco- Roman wrestling, during a time when Holm also won two high school state championships. That was before his promising college career came to an abrupt and shocking end, when Holm was imprisoned in Iowa for third-degree sexual abuse -- a crime he steadfastly maintains he did not commit.

Had he admitted guilt and entered a sex-offender treatment program, he could have substantially reduced his term. Holm refused multiple opportunities to do so and spent 6 1/2 years behind bars. As his dreams faded away in his 5-by-9-foot cell at a state penitentiary, he clung to a faint hope that he might return to wrestling. Only days after his release, he called Chandler, who welcomed back an athlete he had never forgotten.

This week, Holm will return to Iowa City -- the place where he was accused, tried and convicted -- to compete at the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials. Ranked No. 2 in the nation in the Greco-Roman 84-kilogram class (185 pounds), he won a tournament 18 days after leaving prison and has since medaled at several national and international meets.

Holm, 30, is quick to note it was not the idea of wrestling again that kept him from sinking into the despair and hopelessness of life at Anamosa State Penitentiary. He said that task fell to God, whose presence he felt in even his most dehumanizing moments. Prison did not shake his strong faith. Instead, it deepened it, enabling Holm to return to his life and his sport unburdened by bitterness, resentment or self-pity.

"What's happened over the past two years is an awesome experience that I'm very grateful for," said Holm, who has filed motions for post-conviction relief in his ongoing attempts to clear his name. "Making the Olympic team was a very huge dream for me. It was trounced on and suffocated to the point of it being just a little flicker, a cold little flame that barely survived. And now it's come roaring back to life.''

Faith, Holm said, made him believe that God would not turn away from him. He wasn't as certain about the reception he would receive from the wrestling community, but he has been overwhelmed by the support he has gotten in Minnesota and around the nation.

"When the news [of his conviction] got around, people couldn't believe it," said Chandler, coach of the Minnesota Storm club and a former Olympic athlete and coach. "He's worked hard over the last two years, and he's made tremendous progress. He is right where he wants to be."

The night it all changed

Holm was gearing up for another wrestling season at the University of Northern Iowa in 2002. A pre-med student, he was projected as an All-America.

On Sept. 14, he attended a college party at a home in Iowa City. He had been invited to spend the night, but when he entered the only unlocked bedroom, a woman and her boyfriend already were sleeping in the bed. Holm said he lay down on the floor at the foot of the bed; a few minutes later, the woman awoke and accused him of performing nonconsensual oral sex on her.

On Sept. 16, Holm was charged with third-degree sexual abuse. He said his attorney assured him the case would be thrown out; when it became clear that wouldn't happen, Holm said, his lawyer advised him to waive his right to a jury trial. Though Holm didn't agree with that strategy -- or with a decision not to call any character witnesses to testify on his behalf -- a trial was set for July 2003 before District Judge Denver Dillard.

The victim testified she awoke to find someone performing oral sex and screamed when she realized it was not her boyfriend. According to court documents, multiple witnesses said they saw Holm running down the stairs, either putting on or pulling up his pants. The woman testified that she was upset because "no one believed [her]''; when her boyfriend was asked if he wanted to believe that Holm didn't do anything, he testified, "I kind of did.''

A DNA expert testified for the defense that the absence of Holm's DNA on the accuser's genital area was "inconsistent with oral sex," and he said a trace amount found on her thigh was "consistent with a very casual contact." Holm said his lawyer expected that testimony would exonerate him.

On Aug. 28, Holm drove to Iowa City for the verdict, believing he would return to the UNI campus in time for an afternoon quiz in his humanities class. Instead, his attorney told him the judge had decided to convict him. Holm fell to his knees in the empty courtroom; his mother burst into tears. "I just sat there kind of limp," he said. "I kept asking, 'What does that even mean? How could he find me guilty? Am I going to jail?' It was a very surreal thing."

Prosecuting attorney Victoria Cole, who was not available for comment, previously shared a different view of the outcome. In a Cedar Rapids Gazette story last year, she said the evidence supported the conviction and that the victim had no reason to lie. "She wasn't seeking vengeance," Cole told the paper.

In his verdict, Dillard explained that the case hinged on his determination of who was more credible. "No evidence was presented which placed serious doubt on the truthfulness of [the accuser's] testimony," he wrote. "Without a firm reason to believe [the accuser] was lying or had been dreaming, the verdict in this case cannot be not guilty."

Still, at Holm's sentencing on Nov. 7, Dillard said he viewed it as "something that was done in a moment of weakness" -- and if he had a choice, Holm would not have gone to prison. But under Iowa law, third-degree sexual abuse carries a mandatory prison term not to exceed 10 years. Holm began serving his time at the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, which specializes in treatment of sex offenders.

After rejecting several offers to enter the treatment program and shorten his term -- which required that he admit guilt -- Holm was transferred to Anamosa State Penitentiary, a maximum/medium security prison. He was released April 25, 2010, six years and eight months after his conviction.

To this day, Holm does not regret that he extended his prison time by maintaining his innocence. "The worst part of my sentence was the accusation," he said. "It wasn't being told I was going to stay in a 9-by-5 cell for the next five years. It's the fact that I was unjustly accused and unjustly convicted of a crime I would never do. I was far more concerned with the truth being established than I was with my freedom."

Holm's brother Jason -- who runs the website freejordan.org, which aims to clear Holm's name -- said that as devastated as the family was, they understood and supported Jordan's decision. Jason, also a state champion wrestler, often encouraged his brother by talking about a return to the sport.

"He was still hanging on to that goal," said Jason Holm, an orthopedic surgeon in Minneapolis. "At times, I wasn't sure it was realistic. But did I think it was possible? Absolutely. Jordan is a very driven guy."

Keeping his faith

In prison, Holm said, he marked the passage of time by the sports he played. He signed up for everything that was offered, including flag football, basketball and ping pong.

During most of his five years at Anamosa, his cell was unlocked at 6 a.m., and he could go outside for a 2- to 3-mile run before breakfast. After eight hours of work, Holm was allowed to lift weights for a couple of hours, and he usually worked out again at night. "Most people thought I was crazy," he said. "I wasn't doing it with the idea I'd return to wrestling; mostly, I just didn't want to be unproductive. But I very faintly held on to the dream of wrestling again."

Holm supplemented his prison diet of breaded meat and canned vegetables with tuna packets he purchased at the commissary. He paid for them, he said, with the 88 cents a day he earned at various jobs.

In frequent letters to his family and friends, Holm pondered the nature of God and man and the absurdities of prison life. He identified with Biblical and historical figures who endured hardships, which helped him focus on what he still had: his health, the love of his family, his athletic ability. Holm said he never felt abandoned or adrift, and he came to view his experience as a way to deepen his understanding of both human and spiritual truths.

Wrestling had aided him, too, teaching him how to maintain control and exercise logic in challenging situations. On the Sunday Holm was released from prison, he wasn't sure when he might be ready to get back on the mat. The wrestling community made the decision for him, sweeping him up with enthusiasm.

"When you're an inmate, you're spoken to, looked at and thought about in a certain way for so long that it's hard not to think about yourself as less," he said. "I remember being overwhelmed at how kind the coaches were when I first came into contact with them. I'm sure it was normal to them. But I was really grateful."

Ready for second chance

Chandler said Holm was in "really phenomenal" shape on the first day he came to the wrestling room. He had maintained strength, stamina and agility, and he began working out five days a week in both the Greco-Roman and freestyle disciplines.

Holm's long absence -- and a once-short hairstyle grown into a cloud of curls -- meant few people recognized him. But they noticed as his timing and muscle memory snapped back, revealing the star quality of his past. Holm still was learning new rules and refining rusty techniques when Chandler suggested he enter the Northern Plains Regional tournament only 18 days after his release.

After Chandler offered gas money for the drive to Iowa, Holm agreed. He won the 84k class in both Greco-Roman and freestyle, a stunning return to competition.

That caught the attention of Brad Vering, a 2004 and 2008 Olympian in the 84k Greco class and a coach of Holm's at Northern Iowa. He thought elite wrestling would ease Holm's reentry into society, and he urged U.S. national coaches to bring him to training camps. "It really looked like he hadn't missed a beat," Vering said.

By year's end, Holm had begun earning medals for the United States at international tournaments. That put him on track for a major goal: making the U.S. Greco-Roman team that would compete at the 2011 world championships. That season, he finished second in the world team trials, won the U.S. title, medaled at three international meets and defeated 2010 world champion Hristo Marinov of Bulgaria.

Because of his conviction, Holm faces restrictions during his stays at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. According to U.S. national Greco-Roman coach Steve Fraser, Holm must be escorted while on the grounds, and he is limited to using the wrestling, training, sports medicine and dining facilities. Fraser said to the best of his knowledge nothing would prevent Holm from competing if he makes the Olympic team.

Holm is among the favorites in an extremely competitive 84k class at the Olympic trials, where only the top finisher at the weight advances to London. Jason Holm said many friends and family members will be there, and Jordan said he even has heard from prison officials who plan to follow the competition.

Making the Olympic team would realize a longtime goal, one Holm thought might be lost forever. Getting this far has given him hope that other ambitions might be restored, too. His hard-won wisdom has taught him to take nothing for granted, while knowing that nothing is impossible.

"This has been such an awesome experience," he said. "I'm so proud to represent the U.S. and Minnesota, and it would be a dream come true to represent them in London.

"I'm very grateful for the doors God has opened for me and the talents he's given me. I'd like the opportunity to do what he would want all of us to do -- become the best we can be."

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