Caylor Williams qualified for his first U.S. World Team last month in Stillwater, Okla. Tony Rotundo photo.
If not for a little smack talk from one of his buddies on the football team, Caylor Williams may have never stepped on a wrestling mat.
"You think football is hard?" Francisco Grullon told Williams in 2005. "Wrestling is way harder. You wouldn't last one day at a wrestling practice."
Williams accepted Grullon's challenge, and he immediately learned precisely what his buddy was talking about. There were times - "a million times" - that Williams wanted to quit wrestling that first season.
During his first year of competitive wrestling, as a freshman at Palm Bay (Fla.) High School, Williams was thrust into the starting lineup at 171 pounds.
His instructions from Coach Sean Ballard were straightforward each time he went out onto the mat.
"You know your job" Ballard said. "Don't get pinned."
As you might expect, Williams had trouble not getting pinned that first season. Facing older and much more experienced opponents in one of the heavier weight classes, he stepped onto the mat 24 times that season. He was pinned 22 times. He didn't win a single match he competed in.
But Williams stuck with it. The guy who couldn't win a match as a freshman didn't lose as a senior. He went 50-0 and won a Florida state championship in his final prep season.
The remarkable transformation of Williams has continued and now the promising 22-year-old has landed a spot on the U.S. World Team in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Still relatively inexperienced on the Senior level against international opponents, Williams doesn't shy away from setting lofty goals. He will represent his country at 96 kg/211.5 lbs. at September's World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
"I want to win a World title" Williams said. "That's the goal. My focus is on being the best. I want to be No. 1."
The goals Williams sets now have changed dramatically since his rude introduction to wrestling as a prep freshman.
"It was a terrible experience - not being any good and losing all of those matches" he said. "A lot of guys would have walked away after getting their butt kicked like that. I had never encountered anything that difficult. There were a million times I wanted to quit.
"I eventually started setting little, little tiny goals like not getting pinned or just trying to get one takedown in a match. I kept working and tried to stay positive. Gradually, I started to get better."
Williams continued to wrestle and train that summer, and made significant improvement his sophomore season in high school. He finished with a record just under .500.
"Coach Ballard stuck with me and pushed me" Williams said. "His coaching was a balance of being supportive and being hard on me. The program didn't have much of a legacy - a lot of the wrestlers were brand new to the sport like I was."
Williams made another big jump his junior season, finishing third at the state tournament before capturing a state title as a senior.
"I actually felt like the state title was overdue because I thought I should've won it the year before" Williams said. "It was a great feeling to see how far I had come. I was floating on air when I won a state title."
Williams accepted a scholarship offer from past U.S. World Team Greco-Roman wrestler Jason Loukides at North Carolina-Greensboro, an NCAA Division I school.
Williams redshirted his first season in college, finishing 14-10 in open tournaments. He followed by placing fourth in both the University Nationals and FILA Junior Nationals in Greco-Roman in 2010.
Williams earned a spot in the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman during the 2010-11 season, earning Southern Conference Freshman of the Year honors while qualifying for the NCAA Championships in Philadelphia.
Just three days before the start of the NCAA tournament, on March 14, 2011, the UNC-Greensboro team was called into a meeting with Athletic Director Kim Record. It was announced the school was dropping wrestling.
"We had no idea it was coming" Williams said. "Our team was really starting to flourish. We were young, strong and hungry."
Williams experienced an array of emotions that day.
"Shock, and then just pure anger" he said. "I was so mad that I got exhausted. It was heartbreaking, seeing my teammates breaking down in tears. Those guys were my family. It was rough - really rough. It made me sick."
A few days later, the unseeded Williams went 0-2 at the NCAAs. He lost by fall and technical fall at 197 pounds.
"Everything that happened affected me at the NCAA tournament" Williams said. "You don't want to make excuses, but I wasn't focused out there."
Instead of transferring, Williams and a number of his teammates elected to stay at UNC-Greensboro. The school continued to honor the scholarships of the athletes that elected to stay.
Loukides offered to continue to coach wrestlers in Greco-Roman wrestling. Williams chose to stay in Greensboro with Loukides and the YES Wrestling Club.
"I wanted to stay around and continue to coach those guys" Loukides said. "I had made a commitment to those kids and I wanted to honor it."
Williams stayed in school and earned his degree from UNC-Greensboro in sociology with a criminology focus.
Williams jumped onto the Senior circuit in Greco-Roman wrestling and made a quick impact. He placed third in the New York AC International in 2011 before winning the event this past November.
Williams qualified for the 2012 University World Championships, but dropped his first match to a wrestler from Romania and fell short of placing.
"It was a big eye-opener for me" he said. "I was trying to be too tactical and squandered my chance. I should have opened up and been more offensive. I have learned from that and continued to get better."
Williams has continued to wrestle well this season. He placed second in the Granma Cup in Cuba and third in the Pan American Championships. He followed by winning a University Nationals title before winning the U.S. World Team Trials last month.
"Caylor is very talented and really motivated" Loukides said. "He loves Greco-Roman wrestling. He is extremely powerful, and he has very good speed and strength. He has great hip flexibility, which allows him to be able to throw people."
Williams credits Loukides for much of his success. Jamel Johnson, Williams' college roommate and teammate, won a University World bronze medal in Greco last year.
"Jason Loukides has been amazing" Williams said. "He opened a gym so he could continue to coach us and train us. He's sacrificed so much for us. He's a father figure, counselor and mentor. He recruited us and saw us through. He's still my coach."
In addition to his physical tools, Williams has a strong makeup off the mat.
"Caylor's mental outlook has always been real impressive" Loukides said. "He's eager to learn and excited about competing in the sport. He wants to be a champion. He believes in himself and he's not afraid of anything."
Williams has joined the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program. He is a member of the U.S. Army National Guard and plans to join the Army full-time.
The explosive, 6-foot-2 Williams has made major gains since focusing full-time on Greco.
"I didn't like to tie-up and go upper body when I wrestled folkstyle in high school and college" he said. "I couldn't throw anybody and I didn't know anything about Greco."
Now Williams is a dangerous wrestler with an ability to score big points with an array of throws.
"Loukides' system is very innovative in Greco" Williams said. "He teaches you to stay open and be flexible, and not be one-dimensional. I just let it flow and let it fly out there. My philosophy is if you have an opening you grab it and throw it. I love this style of wrestling."
The scary part for his opponents is that Williams is still learning and still developing in Greco-Roman wrestling.
"Caylor has a lot of potential" Loukides said. "He definitely has a shot to be real strong for the U.S. for many years to come. He is motivated to win a medal at the World level. He needs to stay in positions he is really good in and stay consistent with his performances. If he does that, he has a chance to win a medal for the U.S."
U.S. National Coach Steve Fraser is impressed with the rapid progression that Williams has made in Greco.
"Caylor Williams is very explosive and very athletic" Fraser said. "He has some great techniques. He seems very coachable, and if he improves his pummeling and hand-fighting skills, he can be a huge threat at the Worlds in Budapest this September."
Williams has had the opportunity to battle five wrestlers that are ranked in the top 10 in the World in his weight class. He recorded a fall over World No. 8 Yerulan Isakov of Kazakhstan earlier this year.
"I feel like I will be jumping into some big water at the World Championships" he said. "That's a big step for me, but it's the next step. I'm ready for that challenge."