If you want to be the best at anything in life you have to sacrifice a great deal. This old saying is true for about anything in life and wrestling is certainly not an exception. I have seen our national team make many sacrifices over the last five years; these sacrifices have been the catalyst in creating a team mentality of expecting to win every time we go on the mat to compete. The Medved International wrestling tournament in Belarus is a very strong event, and for the USA team to come home with seven medals — 2 gold, 2 silver and 3 bronze — is a great achievement. But we are not going to hang our hats on this performance, because I know, as do the rest of the coaches, that winning in the winter means nothing if we cannot duplicate this performance in September. The winter tour season is a time for us to travel overseas, train, make weight, compete and most importantly, come home with ideas and plans that will help future trips be more successful.
I am very proud of how the men competed at the tournament. It was a long trip, and for about half of them, they had to make weight and wrestle two weeks in a row. Throw in the week-long training camp in Azerbaijan prior to the World Cup, and it’s the formula to potentially wear an athlete out. When Zeke started coaching the national team after the 2008 Olympics, part of his plan was to increase the amount of time our team spent overseas. When I was young and competing, there weren’t too many guys who wrestled overseas, let alone regularly trained overseas. Now these men don’t think anything of it, and for the new guys coming into the system, spending weeks overseas is becoming the norm. In my mind, this is where most of our recent success can be traced to. The team is making sacrifices in order to understand and experience what it takes to become the best in the world. In the past, we would fly in, make weight, wrestle then leave the very next day. Now we try to participate in a training camp before every international tournament we compete in. Our national team men know the wrestlers they compete against not just in wrestling, but in regular life as well. We know them at a deeper level than ever before so that when we are training and preparing for the World Championships and Olympics, we can close our eyes and know everything our competitors are doing to get ready for the same tournament. When I was younger, the Russians were a mystery to me and probably the rest of the national team, but now we know them and now we know we can beat them.
On the first day of the Medved tournament, we had nine athletes competing in the first four weight classes. We were ready to win. The coaches and support staff (massage therapist, chiropractor and trainer) arrived early to secure a nice spot in the stands for our team to set up camp. We catered to the guys’ every need. On the day of a tournament athletes should only focus on winning and let the support staff take care of the rest. Our team chiropractor, Dr. Fred Roberto, might have been the most helpful person on the trip. He knows a lot about nutrition and insisted on going shopping to buy the best food for the guys to eat throughout the day. He adjusts them before and after matches, while our massage therapist gave them a quick rub to flush out the lactic acid they built up during matches and our trainer will work on and tape any injury they get throughout the day. These men volunteer their time, and without them our team would have a tougher time winning. It takes a lot of money to bring them all on the trip, but if we want to win and be the best team in the world, we have to continue to fundraise in order to have the support staff that we have.
We won two medals on the first day and just missed out on another. Jimmy Kennedy was silver at 60kg, while Jordan Burroughs won gold at 74kg. Both these wrestlers looked great and have already had quite a bit of success this year. I was lucky to be picked as a coach for this tour, and I was very excited to have Jimmy with me the whole way. I know what he is capable of doing, because I see it every single day, but now the world is starting to take notice what he can do. The Russian he faced in the finals knew going into the match that he would have a difficult time with Jimmy, so he used the rules to his advantage. He ended up winning both ball pulls and both clinches. Jimmy teched him the second period, 7-0, in just a little more than a minute. As a coach, I wasn’t anything I could tell Jimmy that would have cheered him up after the match. He wrestled great, but in the end, he lost on a rule that will likely be eliminated from the sport by the end of the week. As far as Jordan… well he was Jordan. I am not his coach, and since Zeke was on this trip, he was the one who cornered Jordan and I was able to sit back and enjoy the show he put on. From the World Cup and then in Belarus, Jordan wrestled hard, put up a lot of points and did everything he could to make this sport better. The foreign athletes, coaches and fans know that he is something special and that he has paid the price to earn all of his success. He works hard and doesn’t take anything for granted. Zeke could not be happier with the example he sets. When you have a world and Olympic champion living in an outdated hotel room in the middle of the Belarusian woods just to train and compete, it makes it easier for the rest of the guys to do the same and then expect the same results.
The second day of the tournament started out the same as the first day. We set up camp and provided the men with everything they needed in order to perform at their maximum capacity. They responded well, and at the end of the day we had one gold, one silver and three bronze medals. Tervel was our lone champion on the second day. Like Jordan, he sacrifices a lot to be where he’s at. He goes to all the best tournaments in the world and trains overseas every chance he gets. You can tell by the way he competes that he knows what it takes to win and has been there so many times that wrestling a foreign athlete no longer feels foreign to him.
We have some great leadership on the team right now and the men all get along. They push each other and help each other whenever they can. When we are in United States, we are spread across the country at our different training locations, but overseas, we are one nation and the men help each other and push each other to be the best they can be for American wrestling. This attitude will take us far and is the reason I believe we will win the World Championships and World Cup within the next three years. We have great coaches who are willing to do everything they ask their athletes to do, we have great support staff, and most importantly, we have a great group of young men who want to win. Every trip overseas I learn something new, and I can see how to run a successful team. Like the athletes, I use these trips to expand my knowledge of the sport. I am continuing to learn more about nutrition and all the other elements it takes to get an athlete to close the gap on the best wrestlers in the world. The margin between taking silver and gold at the Olympics is a very small and in order to get to that point you have to do everything right at all times. I am learning exactly what this entails with every passing trip.