Wrestling created a home in Arizona for Ukrainian Fenn

Updated: August 18, 2023

Photo: Ivan “Vonn” Fenn (left) celebrated winning the 120-pound Arizona state high school championship with his Thunderbird coach Lee Chandler. (RMN Events photo)

By Bill X. Barron

At age four, Ivan “Vonn” Fenn was adopted, along with his brother Serge, who was six, from the Ukrainian region – Donetsk – literally on the border of Russia’s ongoing, relentless aggression. 

Perhaps that back-history foretold that Vonn would become an ambassador, one who builds bonds and who repairs rifts between one-time enemies. 

“I don’t interact with an opponent before a match, but once it’s over, he’s a friend I help get up off the mat,” he proclaims.

In the words of the Thunderbird (Arizona) head coach, Lee Chandler, “Vonn is most cerebral; show him a move once or twice, and he has mastered the technique. Later he’s teaching it to teammates.”

Yet another part of Fenn’s personality is that “he does not overthink situations, so he is able to move beyond things that might get another person down,” asserts his mother, Danita.

If you view Vonn by his most recent accomplishments in 2023 — Arizona Division 2 state high school champion at 120 pounds and RMN national champion at 18U/120 in both folkstyle and freestyle — you would only see the tip of the iceberg. 

His real story lies beneath the surface.

In 2009, the Fenn family consisted of five girls. Then Danita “watched a news show on orphaned kids in Russia that broke my heart.” But Russia was closed to adoption, so Danita and Daniel explored options in recently-liberated Ukraine. With a sense of humor, the agency thought they needed boys.

At the time, Vonn and his brother were severely malnourished and undersized. While Serge quickly learned English and engaged socially, Vonn tread a more concerning path and had difficulty making and keeping friends. He wore them out, trying too hard to be their buddy.

Everything changed in seventh grade.

Long before Vonn Fenn won a state championship for Thunderbird High School, the native of Ukraine got a chance to see who were the other greats at this Arizona school.

“Not another community other than wrestling would have accepted his quirkiness,” said Danita. “In wrestling, touching was an acceptable means of making a connection and, in time, he earned the respect of his team.”

On “pure tenacity and desire,” Vonn began to change the perception others had of him and, more importantly, to trust himself. 

“No one works harder,” said Chandler. “He’s always asking questions in order to get better at everything he does.”

Vonn demonstrated he had poise as early as ninth grade. Coach Travis Azevedo recalls an early-season match with Tempe in which Vonn was the final wrestler at 106 pounds, with the Titans down by five points. 

“I told him it was up to him, and he assured me he would handle it,” said Azevedo, adding that Vonn’s second-period pin solidified his team’s victory.

Though he was successful in high school from the outset, the top of the podium eluded him. As a freshman, Vonn qualified for state and fell one match short of the Blood Round. In his sophomore year, he advanced to the finals, only to fall short by a 1-0 margin. As a junior, he was 41-0 entering the finals, but lost 9-5.

“It’s hard to be a two-time runner-up and still be motivated,” said Azevedo. “I’ve coached state champs who are tough to get along with. With Vonn, when it’s time to wrestle, it is all business. Yet afterward, he’s the friendliest guy I know. When the team is ready to leave, we have to hunt him down because he’s talking to guys from the other teams.”

“Some coast in their senior year, but Vonn knew he had to be perfect,” Chandler said. “He put in more off-season work than any kid I’d seen in 10 years.” 

Even though Vonn was 92-3 over his last two seasons, with his three losses all to state champions, he knew he had to keep improving.

Yet, between his junior and senior years, his school was moved to the large-school division. In his first tournament, the returning state champion – Canyon View’s Giovanni Martinez Chavez – was in his 120-pound bracket. Vonn battled him twice, falling 6-4 in the first bout, then was blanked 4-0 in the finals.

“After he lost to Giovanni, I urged Vonn to get as good as possible on his feet,” Coach Azevedo recalled. “But we also had to improve on bottom. If he can’t ride you, he won’t beat you.”

“I had to become more offensive, less passive, and initiate better shots if I was to win the next time we met,” Vonn said.

Vonn’s character began to develop from the time of his adoption. Mom recites that “Vonn has a unique ability to take everything in stride. He doesn’t stress out. Wrestling reinforced this coping mechanism by helping him develop a more realistic picture. He knows it will all work out in the end.”

“Prior to state, I sat alone in the wrestling room looking at the wall of state champions,” he recalled. “It came to me that if I didn’t achieve this goal, then it would be another 10 years until the school had a state champ. 

“Before a match, I pace back and forth to get into my own place, without the distraction of my opponents. The finals at state are when my mind really turns on.”

Advancing to the 2023 state finals, he again faced his nemesis from the west side of Phoenix. After the first period, Vonn was down 2-0 when Martinez scored while fending off Fenn’s single-leg attack. In the second period, Giovanni selected bottom, but Vonn rode him out for two minutes with an arm bar.

“When Vonn looked to me for choice of position in the third period, I indicated down, because that’s where he needed to win the match,” remembers Azevedo. “After he tied the match with a switch and rode him out, I knew we had him in overtime.” 

Shortly into sudden victory, Vonn hit an outside single to earn the elusive state title with 0:38 on the clock and 4-2 on the scoreboard. 

“When I swam toward his leg, I had him; he knew it and gave in,” Vonn said. “It’s an unexplainable feeling to finish on top. Coach Chandler encouraged me to take one last look at the stadium as that would be my last time. Then I embraced the moment with all my coaches and teammates.”

But that’s not where the story ends. After state, Dan offered to sponsor wrestlers from other teams to compete in Fargo, to help them gain the attention of colleges for a wrestling scholarship, even though this meant that some of those wrestlers would again be in Vonn’s weight class.

“While Vonn is set apart by his commitment to winning state, he is also an ambassador for the sport,” said Lee. “When we walk into a gym, Vonn is already known by the tournament director, the security officer, and most of the other coaches and wrestlers.

“He’s half coach, mentoring other athletes, driving across the valley to coach other wrestlers, and helping with the girls team. Because he is also trained as a referee, he’s a real asset in the room. It has been a privilege to have him in class, as he is constantly working to better himself.”

Between Serge’s third-place finish at 138 pounds in 2022 and Vonn’s three finals, the Fenn family has accounted for four state medals in three years for the Thunderbird program. Driven by their dad, they earned this status by competing year-round in tournaments across the country. Their example leads the way for others to put in the time and the work to earn their way to a championship.

A freestyle official for the past three summers with USA Wrestling, Vonn often offers his service to youth tournaments in between his own matches as a competitor. 

“My family has imparted to me the importance of earning and giving respect,” he said. “They taught me to value people and to always give back.”

Vonn competed in several tournaments as a member of the Silverbacks (Calif.) Club coached by Ian Butler. 

“When you have a special connection, you just know,” Butler said. “Vonn is that special. We both came from adopted backgrounds, so we immediately understood one another. When he was in doubt about wrestling in college, we convinced him he has the ability to succeed at that level.” 

His tenacity also served him well in his fire science class, which was taught by Coach Azevedo. This year the inaugural Gladiator competition was a race against other schools in six categories that simulate actual firefighting: a race wearing an SCBA bottle mask, a pull quick attack, the fireman’s carry, a fire hydrant turn, the dummy drag, and a door breach with a sledgehammer. 

Vonn trained for the Gladiator like a wrestler, coming in to practice his skills on off days. Though he was by far the smallest competitor, Vonn finished the competition as the top young firefighter. He leaves high school Wildland certified and trained in Fire Levels 1 and 2. 

He has accepted a full scholarship to attend Southern Oregon University, where he plans to compete for the NAIA team while preparing to earn a degree in outdoor adventure leadership. 

Vonn believes that one should treat others as you wish to be treated. His father models this ethic. Whenever another wrestler needs help or a ride to a camp or tournament, whether he is from their school or not, Dan reaches out and absorbs them into the Fenn’s all-inclusive wrestling family. 

Had they remained in the Ukraine, Vonn and Serge would be on the front-lines of a battle to preserve their nation’s independence. “On God’s timing,” a phrase Vonn is prone to use, the Fenns found them and together they all found true family as one with the wrestling community.