Friday, January 7 was not just a normal day of practice at the Greco-Roman National Team Training Camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. All of the wrestlers came to practice knowing what to expect at the afternoon workout. It was the Grind Match workout.
What exactly is a Grind Match?
To get the true perspective, just ask National Greco-Roman Coach Steve Fraser, a 1984 Olympic champion who has been putting his troops through this extreme test ever since he took over the program in 1995.
"A real Grind Match is two hours, per Steve Fraser. We are going 90 minutes today, which is still considered a Grind Match. Anything less is a Mini-Grind," said Fraser.
In this practice, a wrestler will compete live against one opponent for 90 straight minutes. There are no whistles, no water breaks, no stoppage of action. The room is hot and stuffy, there is music playing, and the athletes are pounding on each other. You really have to witness this to understand what makes this so grueling.
The reason it was only a 90-minute match on Friday was that they had to split the practice in half. There were too many athletes at the training camp. The three mats in the wrestling room were way too crowded. The lightweights came in at 3:00 p.m. and the heavyweights came in at 4:30 p.m. If there were more room, the matches would have been even longer.
Grind Matches are so brutal that there are very few rules.
"Walls are in bounds. There is no stopping. If you get a takedown, you can work to turn him for as long as you want. After a few minutes, you let him back up, but you don’t just let him go. You come out in front in a front headlock, and make him fight to get up. And when he does get to his feet, you stay right in his face," said Fraser.
Get the picture? This is not fun.
"There are reasons we do it. First is the volume conditioning, building your base conditioning. Also, if you play chess for eight hours, you will get better at chess. If you wrestle for two hours, you will be a better wrestler in many ways, such as your rhythm, chain wrestling, never stopping on the mat," said Fraser.
But in Fraser’s mind, there really is one reason that he subjects American Greco-Roman wrestlers to this kind of training torture.
"The main objective of a grind match is to break the opponent, to make him quit, sit down, cry. You are always trying to score during the match, but the main thing is to break him," he said.
The athletes and the coaches in the room have learned to appreciate this training challenge, even if they don’t like it. Just ask 2005 World bronze medalist Justin Ruiz, one of the veteran leaders on the national team.
"It is one of those things they throw in to test you. I can’t say I am excited about it," said Ruiz.
Ruiz understands the reason for the Grind Match, and pushes himself to dominate his opponent.
"It is a test of physical and mental strength. You learn how to wear a guy down. You work on one thing for a long time and wear on a person until they open up and let you score. It is not my favorite thing, but it is good to throw it in there for our training. It is good to be one of the older guys and you grab one of the younger guys. It’s especially hard for those guys who don’t have a collegiate background and have just done Greco-Roman and don’t know about all those bar arms and holds from the mat," said Ruiz.
Willie Madison, the assistant coach of the USOEC Greco-Roman program at Northern Michigan University, appreciates the Grind Match from many perspectives. For many years, he was a top Greco-Roman wrestler at the Olympic Training Center who had to endure this form of training.
"It is about mental toughness. You work to break the opponent and make them quit. You have to function when you are uncomfortable. When you are exhausted, you still need to score points in a match. You learn that when your tank is empty, you still have so much more within you," said Madison.
Now as a coach of young college Greco-Roman wrestlers, he sees how Grind Matches help in their development and teaches them to push beyond their self-imposed limitations.
"It is great for my guys. They are Junior level wrestlers, and they don’t know what it is like to get uncomfortable and exhausted. When I was young, I dreaded it. When I understood what they were about, I accepted them, looked forward to them and prepared for them," said Madison.
Pete Kowalczuk is a talented young heavyweight wrestler who has competed on University World and Junior World Teams. These matches are very difficult for big men like Kowaczuk, who must push around almost 300 pounds around for what seems like an eternity.
"It is tough for me. It is as hard as it sounds," said Kowalczuk. "You learn to push your body past its limits. You work on your pummeling. You get to the point where you are not even thinking. Your body is just doing it out there. You are in that red zone, where you have reached total exhaustion. You are working on yourself and on your mental game."
USA Wrestling National Developmental Coach Ike Anderson believes in this form of training. A 1988 Olympian, Anderson helps develop the World and Olympic medalists of the future.
"It is about toughness. It is about doing something way above average. How many wrestlers go just 10 or 20 minutes? This is 90 minutes to find a way to score in wrestling," said Anderson. "The mental part is important. You are thinking, ‘I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I’m getting my butt kicked.’ You have to learn how to finish the match. In your mind, you know you have figured out a Grind Match. In a real match, you now have figured out how to beat this guy. You are going to find out how to win under adversity, when things are not going right. And the last thing, it is a great conditioning workout."
Fraser does not just preach about Grind Matches. He does them. When he asks his wrestlers to wrestle Grind Matches, he also puts himself through the same battle.
On this day, he has chosen Joseph Sheffield as his opponent, a powerful wrestler who competes at 96 kg/211.5 pounds. With a ripped t-shirt and a snarl on his face, Fraser went toe-to-toe with Sheffield for the first hour.
"Normally, I would go the whole time with them, until about a year or so ago," said Fraser. "Since I turned 50, it has been harder for me. My body is older. I probably could still do it. Now, I go for about an hour, then I push people and encourage people."
When the heavyweight wrestlers finished their long 90-minute bout, Fraser and Assistant National Greco-Roman Coach Momir Petkovic called all of the wrestlers over into the corner for a pep talk. The lightweights had already started their own grind match. Fraser told them something that he truly believes to be true.
"Nobody you wrestle internationally is doing this. You deserve to win because you are doing it. And you will win," Fraser said with conviction.
Grind Matches are something Fraser did going all the way back to when he was competing in college, then pursuing his Olympic dream in Greco-Roman.
"This is what I did when I was wrestling," said Fraser. "Mark Churella and I would do this everyday. He and I and our other partners would just wrestle non-stop. This is what I was brought up doing. Mark Churella was one of the best college wrestlers ever. This is how we both got better."
Grind Matches are not normal. Never were and never will be. Fraser knows he is asking a lot of his wrestlers, but he has seen that there is a payoff. In 2007, the United States won the World Team Title in Greco-Roman for the first time. A nation which was once considered a laughing-stock in international Greco-Roman now stood on the podium as the champions of the world. He believes the USA can do it again in the future.
"To be the best on the planet, we have to do a few things borderline crazy," said Fraser. "We have to be nutty. Nobody else in the world is doing Grind Matches."