FEATURE Beach World medalist Funicello loves all styles of combat sportsYou could safely call Jeff Funicello of the Sunkist Kids a veteran wrestler. When he competed in the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Greco-Roman wrestling in Las Vegas a few weeks ago at the age of 37, it was the fourth time he had wrestled in an Olympic Trials. This is a man who loves to compete.
"It is always a great feeling," said Funicello about wrestling in the Olympic Trials. "It is always a rush and is very exciting. It was as exciting the fourth time as the first. It is an honor to be a part of it. The opportunity to attempt to be the guy at the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of your career. Knowing anything is possible is very exciting."
You could also call Funicello a combat sports junkie. Name the style of competition, and Funicello has tried in. In many cases, he also teaches it.
Last September, Funicello reached a personal life goal when he won a medal fot the United States at the World Championships. In the sand of Antalya, Turkey, Funicello won a bronze medal in the Under 84 kg/185 lbs. division at the World Beach Wrestling Championships.
In true Funicello style, wrestling on the Beach was not his only competition of the weekend. Funicello also entered the Grappling World Championships and the Sombo World Championships, all which were part of the World Wrestling Games in Antalya.
"I competed in all three styles at the Worlds last year," said Funicello. "Anytime you can compete under the flag of the United States is a great thing. To travel and be part of the USA team is an honor. I was also part of the first U.S. team competing in Grappling."
He had one of his best athletic performances at the Beach Worlds last year, working through a field of tough competitors to earn the bronze medal.
"I had one of the only overtime matches over there, wrestling against the guy who won the gold medal," said Funicello. "Wrestling in the sand takes more out of you than other styles. It slows you down and zaps you. There was some great competition there. Going home with a medal, after all the years training for the Olympics, was rewarding. It was great to compete at a World competition."
The three styles Funicello did in Antalya aren't the only ones he does. He has done all the styles of wrestling, including folkstyle, Greco-Roman and freestyle. When he was young, he competed in judo, boxing and did some competitive kick boxing. At his club in the Phoenix area called American Pankration, Funicello now helps train athletes in Mixed Martial Arts.
His core sport is wrestling. Funicello was a high school wrestler who did folkstyle, and went on to compete for Arizona State. He also did freestyle when he was younger. It wasn't until late in college that he ever tried Greco-Roman. Yet, even while he was concentrating on wrestling, he already had an interest in other combat sports.
"When I was in college, I started with the Mixed Martial Arts," said Funicello. "I started American Pankration in 1990, five years before the UFC. I was always involved with boxing and kick boxing. I started mixing it together. I did what the ancient Greeks did. Pankration was the highlight of the ancient Olympic Games. Now, with MMA, they re-invented the wheel and called it something else. I did it for cross-training for my wrestling. We were doing MMA way back then at our club."
In addition to practicing all of these skills, Funicello also became an instructor.
"I started teaching it. I had a core of all of the disciplines. I brought all these guys together who had experience in all of them. When I was young, my dad got my brothers and I involved in different disciplines. At the club, I had good submission guys, a few boxers, a few kick boxers. I brought them in together," said Funicello.
It does not surprise Funicello that wrestling has become a dominant force in today's Mixed Martial Arts community.
"We run workouts like a wrestling practice. That is why MMA took off once the wrestlers got involved. A lot of the MMA programs today are run like a college wrestling practice or training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. They are using the same training practices now as wrestling does," said Funicello.
It is Greco-Roman wrestling where Funicello has had his major impact on the national scene, prior to his success last year on the beach. In addition to competing in four Olympic Trials, Funicello has placed in a number of international Greco-Roman competitions around the world.
"I didn't do any Greco until after college," he said. "I ran into Coach Roman Wroclawski. He got me into it. It helped having a guy who knew Greco-Roman well out here in Phoenix," said Funicello.
You can attend national wrestling competitions in all styles and you will see Funicello there, along his wife Jennifer. His passion for combat is shared.
"She always comes with me. She helps me relax and has been a big supporter of mine. She is a big confidence booster," said Funicello. "She is a flight attendant. Often, she can hop on a plane to see me compete. We stick around and see the sites often. Like last year. Turkey isn't always a first vacation destination. We get to see things we might not see otherwise."
The Funicellos are excited about something new in their lives this year. They are expecting their first child in December.
Funicello has been active in many styles already this year. In addition to the Greco-Roman he did during the Olympic qualifying process and the Olympic Trials, he also entered an Olympic Regional in freestyle. He will be among the competitors at the Beach Nationals this weekend in Rochester, N.Y. Funicello will then go to Hawaii, to compete in one of the USA Wrestling Grappling Qualifying events. It is his goal to compete at both the Beach World Championshipa and the Grappling World Championships this year.
Funicello is not sure when he will stop competing, but knows he will never stay away from combat sports.
"Even if I just coach, I won't just blow the whistle. I'll mix it up with the guys," said Funicello. "I lead by example. No matter how much longer I compete, I will still be active in training."
However, right now, Funicello still has goals and dreams as an athlete. He is always looking for a good battle.
"I never made an Olympic team as a wrestler. That kept me going. I figured I'd do something. For me, it is all about getting out there in any of the combatives. I love one-on-one combat sports," said Funicello.