WCAP provides talented wrestlers a world-class training system while serving our country

By Taylor Miller, USA Wrestling | April 19, 2017, 3:23 p.m. (ET)

Jenna Burkert at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials. Photos by John Sachs, tech-fall.com

 
The United States Army provides an incredible opportunity that allows its soldiers to train and compete at an elite level in many sports to achieve Olympic and Paralympic goals through the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP).

Many familiar Senior-level wrestlers have taken advantage of the opportunity and together make up one of the most talented rooms in the nation, all while serving our country.

Bruce Robinson, the head assistant coach for WCAP wrestling, has been a part of the program since 1996 when it was based in Georgia and known as All-Army.

In 1997, the program moved to Colorado Springs, where it became known as WCAP. Robinson wrestled through 2004 and then became part of the coaching staff in 2005.

As he puts it, WCAP is the only program he knows, and he’s had the pleasure of watching the program grow and develop over time.

“Back in Georgia, we used to practice in a cafeteria and we had to roll the mats out all the time,” Robinson said. “Where the program has come from there is actually amazing. We had very little funding and now we have a lot of funding. A lot of it had to do with (Dremiel) Byers winning a World championship and World medals. Athletes just wanted to be a part of this program and get that kind of training. It’s really advanced in the aspect of who wants to come. We actually have to turn people down sometimes.”

Primarily Greco-Roman and women’s freestyle WCAP athletes train in Colorado Springs, while the WCAP men’s freestyle wrestlers are based in State College, Pa., and train at Penn State.

Among some of the well-known current WCAP wrestlers are Ryan Mango and Jenna Burkert. Both have been with the program for about two years.

Mango and Burkert both joined WCAP in search of seeing more results and a better opportunity for World and Olympic medals, something they think they’ve found.

Burkert joined WCAP after four-year stints at both the USOEC in Northern Michigan and the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

A 2014 World Team member, Burkert is on the cusp of making her second World Team.

For Burkert, being a part of WCAP gives her the support system and training she needs in addition to her military tasks.

“A little more comes with the title of a World Class athlete,” Burkert said. “I’m not just an athlete, I’m also a soldier. So I have to do my military tasks, my wrestling tasks and then everything else life has for me. That’s been the biggest adjustment for me. At the USOEC, we had a great support system. The coaches there really gave me the confidence that has made me the person that I am, and I think WCAP is going to take me to that next World and Olympic champ level.”

Burkert came into the program solely to be a part of the wrestling room, but what she found was a new passion and career path after wrestling.

“WCAP came first for me,” she said. “When I went to basic training and military job training last summer, I fell in love with being part of the Army. I never thought of myself as a soldier. I respected it, but I never really thought that it was a good fit for me. I came in as part of WCAP, but I fell in love with being a soldier.”

Mango came to WCAP after five years of wrestling folkstyle at Stanford, where he was a two-time All-American. Having played with Greco during his summers off, often with his older brother two-time Olympian Spenser Mango, Ryan decided to wrestle Greco full time.

He spent some time in Minnesota, training with the Minnesota Storm before he realized that he needed to make a change and WCAP was the perfect fit for him.

“Right now, WCAP means everything to me, and that’s why I’m giving all my time energy and focus back to them to help this program remain one of the top programs,” he said. “When I was training in Minnesota, I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted to see. When I came to WCAP, they gave me every opportunity to prove myself and accomplish my goals. It’s up to me at this point, which is what I was looking for.”

                                 

WCAP athletes have consistently been successful on the national and even international levels, producing World champions Dremiel Byers and Iris Smith.

Since 2000, WCAP has put an athlete on every Olympic team until 2016. At the Olympic Trials in Iowa City last April, three wrestlers made it to the finals, including Whitney Conder, Ildar Hafizov and Caylor Williams.

Falling short of putting someone on the 2016 Olympic Team is something that Robinson thinks has motivated everyone in the room even more.

“There’s a new kind of fire. Everyone got used to winning so much, but we laid a goose egg at Olympic Trials,” Robinson said. “I think that reenergized everybody. Everybody is hungry now and they don’t want that to happen again. There is too much talent here for someone to not be on the World Team. Everybody is fired up after Olympic Team Trials and they want to make a statement at World Team Trials next week.”

With the 2017 World Team Trials in Las Vegas just a week away, WCAP has shown they have several contenders to make a World Team, especially at 59 kg.

Six of the nation’s top-10 wrestlers at the weight train in the same room, with the recent addition of 2016 Olympian Jesse Thielke.

Although that might seem like a disadvantage constantly wrestling your opponent and giving up all your secrets, that’s not how the soldiers see it.

“There’s probably a 100 percent chance that the World Team member at our weight comes from this room,” Mango said. “I think it’s great having my top competitors be my teammates. Whether you make the team or not, you know you had a part in either you making the team or in somebody else making the team and the medal they’re going to get. If they beat me, they’re going to be prepared to get a medal. That’s the mentality that we all have and it just helps us get better.”

Not only is 59 kg/130 lbs. almost a lock for a WCAP World Team member but also several WCAP athletes at other weights, including women, have legitimate shots at representing the U.S. on the World Team.

Lately, the women’s program has been a focus as WCAP looks to bring it to the level of the Greco program.

“We’re trying to build our women’s program up to where the Greco program is in terms of numbers,” Robinson said. “Aaron (Sieracki) has been a big part of that. He’s got a lot of trust in these women. We’ve got some high-profile women like Jenna Burkert and Whitney Conder. We’ve got several more who should be here within a month. The program is building, and we’re talking to some other girls about coming out. We just want to keep building.”

Leading the women’s program is multiple-time National Team member Aaron Sieracki. The two-time Olympic Team Trials runner-up has a long list of credentials, including four top-10 finishes at the CISM World Military Championships and six Armed Forces titles. Those experiences paired with his coaching abilities helped earn him USA Wrestling’s Coach of the Year last year.

At the helm of the WCAP program is Shon Lewis, who was the 2012 U.S. Olympic coach and four-time USA Wrestling Greco-Roman Coach of the Year. As an athlete, Lewis was a four-time Greco national champion and two-time World Team member.

Other coaches in the room include 2012 Iran Olympic coach Ali Asgary, 2005 World champion Iris Smith and Dremiel Byers, who was a 2002 World champion, two-time World medalist, two-time Olympian and eight-time World Team member.

Spenser Mango recently became a part of the coaching staff after retiring from an incredible career, which included making two Olympic teams, six World teams and fifth-place finish at the World Championships twice.

“The coaches are great. I think they do a really good job of not focusing on just one athlete because it’s a tough room and there are a lot of guys that are contenders,” Ryan Mango said. “The coaches do a good job of spreading themselves out and helping whoever needs help. They’re great motivators, too. They just let us go at it and teach each other as we wrestle. It’s a great environment.”

Adding to that environment is the dedication and the willingness that comes from every wrestler to make sure every person in the room is prepared to perform their best at all times.

“I have great role models in the room,” Burkert said. “The best part is they’re not only great wrestlers but they’re great people. Every day I have great training partners like the Mango brothers and Mike Fuenffinger and all these great guys who are trying to make me better, and I’m trying to make them better. That’s a great part about WCAP.”

WCAP also possesses a team bond that is unique within wrestling, making it more like a family with an incredible support system.  

“I always say that we’re the only true team in the country because we’re always together,” Robinson said. “Other clubs have guys training all over the country. But at WCAP, we see each other every day. We might fight like brothers and sisters, but we’ve always got each other’s backs. I think that’s vital for a team to grow and have that trust in each other. Sometimes people think we make too much noise when we’re cheering for a teammate. That’s just the way we roll.”