Always Moving Forward – The Andrew Koponen Story By Al Fontes (TCW)

Al Fontes – Editor
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Andrew Koponen “aka, Kope” was born in the small suburban town of Livermore, California, where farms spread throughout the tri-valley and hillside areas, residents gather for the annual rodeo and parade, tourists and locals alike enjoy one of 50 wineries and breweries. His father, a nuclear physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and his homemaker mother, raised four kids in this small town. During Kope’s childhood, his parents taught him that in life he should do the best he can at whatever he set his mind to pursue, regardless of whether it is in school, sports, work and life in general. In short, never give up! Not competing in any organized sports during his early childhood, Kope spent a majority of his free time being adventurous and exploring his environment, new places, and having fun with his family and friends. It was not until his freshman year at Livermore High School that he ever considered participating in sports. At the request of his good friend, Will Ormond, Kope joined him on the wrestling team, which at the time was among the top programs in the North Coast region of California.

If his first try at wrestling was any indication of what to expect in his future, it would have been easier to just give up and try something else. During his freshman season, Kope took his lumps on the mat, winning about five out of twenty or so Junior Varsity (JV) matches. His sophomore year wasn’t any better, especially when he was given the opportunity to move up the ladder of competition a few times and compete at the varsity level. Only winning a few matches that season, Kope understood that something had to change, so between his sophomore and junior years, he joined a couple of his teammates and attended the 14-day J Robinson Intensive Camp during the summer. This experience dramatically changed his outlook, work ethic, and how he approached the sport of wrestling.

Always moving forward…never giving up

Kope’s life motto

Dating back many centuries, one of the Latin proverbs that is likely engraved in stone somewhere; Repetitio est mater studiorum, or as translated in English, “Repetition is the mother of all learning,” still applies today as it did back then. Well, as stated prior, Kope is one to never quit or give up. With a great deal of dedication, determination, and desire to excel in wrestling, Kope’s performance on the mat exponentially improved during his junior season on the varsity squad. That season, he won approximately twenty-five matches and continued his time on the mat competing for the Tri-Valley Wrestling Club in the Bay Area. His senior year, he won approximately thirty-five out of forty matches and earned All East Bay Athletic League honors and brought home a medal at the CIF North Coast Section Championships. Upon his 1989 summer graduation, Kope placed third at the Junior State Greco-Roman Championships and represented Team California at the Junior Nationals in Iowa.

After high school, Kope still had the desire to compete and continued his wrestling career at Humboldt State University in Northern California. While at Humboldt, he competed for two seasons and earned All-American honors at the 1990 Espoir Nationals in Greco-Roman (finalist) and a Bronze medal at the US Olympic Festival. Unfortunately, the Humboldt State program was discontinued after his sophomore season, but that did not deter his continued commitment on the mat or in the classroom. In fact, he increased his training regiment and won an Open Division California State Championship, added another All-American honor at the 1991 Espoir Nationals, and several years later competed at the Olympic trials in Greco-Roman. Continuing his desire to compete, Kope wrestled at several local open division tournaments in the Bay Area until finally wrapping it up in the late 1990s. Overall, Kope competed in just over 1,000 matches in his ten years of competition.

“If you do something 1,000 times over and over again, you’re gonna get good at it.”

Andrew Koponen

Earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Humboldt State, Kope’s childhood dream was to become a Police Officer but realized that earning a position in a police department is not an easy process. In fact, the process is often long and demanding; testing, interviews, physical exams, psychological testing, and more interviews. More often than not, the process discourages a large percentage of the potential candidates from even trying, but not Kope. For several years, Kope applied to several police departments, but failed to make the final cut. In the meantime, he worked for PG&E as a meter reader and coached wrestling at his alma mater, Livermore High School, and the Tri-Valley Wrestling Club. In addition, he participated in local theater and participated in many plays, such as Fiddler on the Roof and The Nutcracker. After several attempts with the Oakland Police Department (OPD), he made the final cut and attended in the 1999 Police Academy. Upon graduating from the academy, he joined the Army National Guard and served a tour in Kuwait just after completing his field training qualification with OPD in 2000.

Working at the Oakland Police Department was a lifelong goal and his dream job after college. Despite having a demanding workload, Kope continued coaching at the high school level and participated in theater when time permitted. Having earned multiple All-American honors in wrestling, graduating from college, serving his country, and now working at his dream job, he felt that his life was almost complete. Unfortunately, working within confines of the tough and dangerous streets of Oakland can alter one’s life in a millisecond. After about a year or so on the job, a life changing experience, while working the midnight shift, altered his life forever.

Kope has never spoken publically about that life changing experience until now. Having had the honor of coaching Kope in high school and spending time together with our families (Kope is married with one son), I was given the opportunity to share his story and new mission in life in the Q&A interview listed below.

Espoir All-American awards & US Olympic Festival Bronze medal

WRESTLING ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Bronze Medalist – 1990 US Olympic Festival

2x Espoir All-American/Finalist (Greco-Roman)

Competed in the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials (Greco-Roman)

Greco-Roman State Champion (Open Division)

College Wrestler – Humboldt State University

California Junior National Team – 1989 (Greco-Roman)

CIF North Coast Section Medalist – 1989

Team Captain – Livermore High School (NCS)

ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENTS

Masters Degree in Education (University of Phoenix)

BA Degree – Political Science (Humboldt State University)

MILITARY SERVICE

Army National Guard –  Mortarman and Machine Gunner

Served with B Company, 184th Infantry Air Assault in Kuwait

ACTOR CREDITS

Professional Actor and a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)

American Fighter (Movie – Assistant Wrestling Coach)

The Master (Movie – V.A. Patient)

San Andreas (Movie – Police Officer)

Ant-Man (Movie – Police Officer)

US (Movie – Beach Person)

Steve Jobs (Movie – Chef)

Chance (TV Series – Police Officer)

When We Rise (TV mini-Series – Police Officer)

Looking (TV series – Rugby Player)

Written in Blood (TV – Police Officer)

13 Reasons Why (TV Series – Detective)

I (Almost) Got Away with It (TV Series documentary – Police Officer)

I Solved a Murder (TV Series – Police Officer)

Hemingway & Gellhorn (TV Movie – Solider)

Contagion (Movie – Bystander)

SCREENPLAY AWARDS – OAKLAND

Official Section (Catalina International Film Festival – 2019)

Semi-finalist (Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival – 2019)

Official Selection (Madrid International Film Festival – 2019)

Official Finalist (Amsterdam International Film Festival – 2019)

Winner (Cordillera International Film Festival – 2019)

Official Selection (California Independent Film Festival – 2019

Semi-Finalist (Save the Cat Screenplay Challenge -2019

Official Selection (Sacramento International Film Festival -2019)

Semi-Finalist (Utah Film Festival and Awards – 2019)

Official Selection (American Screenwriting Conference – 2019)

Best Dialogue Feature Script (Queen Palm International Film Festival – Feb. 2019)

Bronze Award – Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest (Historical / Biographical – 2018)

Best Original Screenplay Feature (London Independent Film Awards – Dec. 2018)

Honorable Mention (Depth of Field International Film Festival – 2018)

Best First Time Screenwriter (Los Angeles Film Awards – Jan. 2018)

Official Selection (Beverly Hills Film Festival – 2018)

Q&A INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW KOPONEN

Humboldt State Wrestling Team

How did you first get involved in the sport of wrestling?

I basically started wrestling when I was a freshman in high school. A friend encouraged me into showing up.  My first match was a knockdown drag-out match, which I won 7-6.  I was so out of shape that I puked twice, but I never gave up and pushed on. My record the rest of the year was mostly losses but I kept at it.  Something inside of me sparked a fire. Wrestling showed me that it was a challenge that required persistence and dedication, something that gave me a platform to push myself as far as I wanted to go. That fire has never stopped.

Who was your biggest influence in the sport?

No doubt my high school wrestling coach Steve Page. He dedicated his life to wrestling and I needed that as I wanted to go to every wrestling tournament, every wrestling camp, and anything else that had to do with wrestling. He was there year-round to take us.  I don’t know very many coaches that gave more than he did.

What are your fondest memories of wrestling at Livermore High School and Humboldt State University?

I find that my fondest memory of wrestling is the friendships I’ve built over the many years.  This applies not only to my lifetime friends, but also to just showing up at the California State Championships each year and hearing from my long ago opponents who now have families and children who are now part of the wrestling world.

Kope with the Livermore coaching staff – Sierra Nevada Class 1995

How long have you coached the sport of wrestling?

I started coaching full time at Livermore High School after college in 1993. We had an awesome team with 60+ wrestlers and a coaching staff of at least 13-15.  Awesome times and great memories. The kids like the Kavanagh brothers, Rich Naval, Joe Iacono, Richard Diaz, Jerry Bohlander, Pete Williams, Stephen De La Cruz and many more, worked so hard and it wasn’t uncommon to bring quite a few wrestlers to the state tournament each year.  I coached for many good years until about the time I was accepted into the Oakland Police Department in 1999.

What do you enjoy most about coaching?

Coaching is giving back to the world and it shows a great respect to all those that coached you in the past. It is also a joy to impart all your knowledge to the next generation and see the magic keep going. Nothing can be better than watching a wrestler use a move that we taught and see it be successful.

What life lessons did you learn in the sport of wrestling that applies in your day-to-day life, both as a family man and entrepreneur?

Always moving forward…Never giving up.  Life isn’t easy. All kinds of trials come at you, and wrestling teaches you to get up when your knocked down. When that opponent has you on your back and it takes everything you got to turn over, you learn an incredibly valuable tool in life. This mental attitude has kept me moving forward under every situation that I’ve been in whether it be when I was in the Army, on the streets of Oakland, writing a screenplay, or changing diapers at 0300 in the morning.

Koponen (left) in a scene of the movie San Andreas

It’s my understanding that you are actively involved in theater and acting. Please explain.

In 1992, I was introduced to the world of theater by performing in a local musical production of Fiddler on the Roof.  It was hard work, but I thoroughly loved the cast companionship and performing on stage.  From then on, I had the bug of acting and dancing, performing in countless shows, musicals, and productions.  In the more recent years, I started professional acting, joining the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and have been cast as background in movies such as San Andreas, Ant-Man, and Steve Jobs.  Currently, I have four shows that are coming out soon, “All Day and A Night,” “Us,” “American Fighter,” and a role as a detective in the T.V. show “13 Reasons Why.”  Also, most people might not know this, but I danced with the ballet company, Valley Dance Theater, for the last 20 years.  I believe wrestling and ballet go hand and hand, requiring exceptional strength, stamina, and grace.  No doubt that has to be a unique combination of being a policeman, soldier, and ballet dancer.

Oakland Police Department

Being a Police Officer with Oakland PD, please explain how your experience shaped your life and their correlation with the sport of wrestling and life in general?

I was, and still am, very proud to have worked as a policeman in Oakland, but it can be also be a very dangerous environment, not just physically but psychologically.

How so?

Out of college it was my dream to be an Oakland Policeman and when I was hired almost 20 years ago, I believed that my life was complete. However, and this is something I’ve never publicly spoken about before, in 2001 with just a year on the job, another Officer and I would end up fatally shooting a man with a gun whom we thought was about to kill another person on the ground. That man with the gun turned out to be a fellow Officer who was working undercover.  In five seconds, my life was turned upside down.

How did you manage to deal with that?

For many years, I didn’t. Saying that I hit rock bottom would be an understatement. The severe psychological guilt and suffering that I went through is by far the worst moment of my life.  Additionally, a lawsuit by the Johnnie Cochran law firm had knocked me down like no one could imagine. Had I not been a wrestler, I have no doubt I would not be here today.

How did wrestling get you through such a horrible accident?

I believe a wrestler can imagine this; and that is I was on my back for years and was in a horrible state of disrepair. However, a wrestling friend had told me man-to-man that at some point I had to make a conscious decision to either stay down or pick myself up. I took those words to heart and eventually entered myself into a PTSD retreat, the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat (WCPR), designed for Emergency Responders. That place saved my life.

Where did you go from there?

I was able to stay on the force for another six years, but when I was in another shooting with a car-jacking suspect, I was honest enough with myself to admit my time as a Oakland Policeman was over.  I did, however, stay in contact with that PTSD retreat and have dedicated the last 10 years in helping other Emergency Responders in their current struggles with PTSD. 

It sounds like you can almost say that your still a coach?

That’s a good way to put it. I’ve so often been encouraged to pick up coaching wrestling again, but my life is now dedicated to helping those fellow Police Officers that are going through a hard time. Most citizens don’t know this but roughly 3x as many Police Officers commit suicide than die on the streets.  I’ve found a calling where I can be a part of an organization that does so much to help prevent that. I feel that I owe it to our country’s Emergency Responders in trying to find something good to come out of such an American tragedy.

One last question, you mentioned you wrote a screenplay, is that what this is about?

Yes, I wrote about, not specifically focusing on the friendly fire accident, but rather on who I was before, how it affected me, and how I was able to find life again. I’ve been relentlessly working on this project for the last four years and my goal is that this eventual movie can be an inspiration to Emergency Responders across the country in helping them get through their own personal struggles with PTSD.

Where are you now with this screenplay?

I’ve taken quite a few workshops, flown down to Hollywood many times, began the graduate program of Film Writing and Directing at the Academy of Art University, and have been attending as many film festivals as I can. I like the saying “A screenplay is never finished”, but it’s got some power to it.  So far it’s won a few awards and I continually seek as much input as I can to make it better. My current goal right now is to find a production company willing to make this into picture.

What’s next?

“Oakland” is selected for the Cordillera International Film Festival and the California Independent Film Festival, so I’m looking forward to attending. And then I’m off to Canada in September for the Toronto International Film Festival to pitch my script. In my opinion, that’s comparable to Cannes or Sundance so I’m excited to see what can happen. It’s time to make this movie.

Movie premiere – Pray for Rain (L to R) Shaun Piccinino (Director), Kope, Ali Afshar (Producer), Merit (wife), and George Kosturos (Actor)
Kope with his wife Merit at the Beverly Hills Film Festival
Kope, Al Fontes, and actor William Fichtner at red carpet premiere of American Wrestler
Kope receiving his Best Dramatic Feature Screenplay at Cordillera Film Festival
2x Greco-Roman All-American/US Olympic Festival Bronze Medalist
Kope at Junior Nationals with teammate and neighborhood friend Clark Conover
Kope reflecting on his wrestling accomplishments – January 2019
Andy Koponen in the 1989 Espoir National finals with Olympian Marco Sanchez
Kope on tour in Kuwait – US Army
Kope performing in the Nutcracker