NEW YORK -- Mike Novogratz, founder of Beat the Streets, remembers the day a decade or so ago when a friend issued him a challenge.
“He got into my face and said, ‘We need to inject more energy into wrestling,’” Novogratz recalled. “So the thought was: where is there more energy in the world than in the middle of Times Square? So, let’s put a mat there.”
Ever since, Team USA wrestlers have coveted invitations to grapple outdoors in the heart of midtown Manhattan, underneath Broadway’s billboards and flashing neon lights. The eighth annual Beat the Streets competition, held on Wednesday, was no different, with a squad including three U.S. Olympic champions squaring off against Japan’s leading competitors in a battle billed as “East Meets West.”
“It’s electric, it’s exciting and it’s really special,” said Helen Maroulis, winner of the United States’ first Olympic gold in women's freestyle wrestling in Rio. “When I was first invited to do it seven years ago, I thought, ‘Oh, this sounds crazy — wrestling in Times Square?’ Now, you get so excited when you get picked to wrestle here.”
Since its founding nearly a decade ago, BTS has increased New York City schoolkids’ participation in wrestling by a staggering 890 percent. It’s not only boys who benefit: some 352 girls wrestle in the only high school-sanctioned girls’ league in the country. Following the matches, a gala is held to raise money to help provide wrestling equipment and opportunities to more than 3,000 youngsters across New York City’s five boroughs each year.
“We’re hoping to raise a million and a half dollars,” Novogratz said. “That program funds 140 different schools that have wrestling here in the city. The overall thought about wrestling is, it’s a great sport to teach toughness, leadership — to teach kids not to be scared of things in life. That’s the mission of BTS and, quite frankly, the mission of wrestling.”
Competing at 58 kg., Maroulis fought off a challenge from Yuzuru Kumano, taking down the Japanese wrestler with an impressive ankle lace and fending off a late charge to win 7-4. Her BTS record now stands at 5-0.
“I was really excited to wrestle this Japanese girl; she was (2016) world junior champion,” Maroulis said. “The Japanese always bring discipline, respect and push. You know it’s going to be a good battle.”
Winning gold in Rio hasn’t dimmed Maroulis’ competitive fire. The 25-year-old has set her sights on Tokyo 2020, but admits her next Olympic cycle will likely be more challenging than the 2016 one.
“It’s definitely different, and I think it has to be different,” she said. “So that’s been an adjustment, but it’s been really positive. I’m learning a lot about myself and my wrestling, seeing new levels. I’m training with great people, and I still have my coach (Valentin Kalika) and he’s amazing. He’s making me realize that I still have a lot more to learn, so that’s really great. You just really have to love the sport.”
Rio gold medalist Kyle Snyder exploded right at the start of his 97 kg. match against Koki Yamamoto, lifting his opponent to his shoulder and slamming him to the mat for a four-point takedown. It took just a minute and a half for Snyder to rack up 10 points and win the match by technical superiority.
“I think Novo and USA Wrestling pick guys (for BTS) they think will score points,” Snyder said. “Nobody really wants to watch a 0-0, 1-0 match, so go out there and score. That’s what people like to see — big moves, slams.”
This was the 21-year-old Snyder’s third BTS match and his second win. The two-time NCAA champion, a junior at Ohio State, reflected on what the sport has taught him and how it can benefit inner-city youngsters.
“You can’t control the wins and losses — if you could, I would be a million and 0,” he said. “Control what you can control: your effort, your attitude, how many shots you take. That goes for everything you want to do in life. Find something you love. I love wrestling, that’s why I like competing and training.”
Jordan Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic champion, lifted his BTS record to 7-0 with a win over Sohsuke Takatani, a two-time Olympian and 2014 world championships silver medalist. After a slow first period, Burroughs kicked off the second half with a two-point takedown, followed by a gut wrench to earn another two points. He won the bout 9-2.
“I never have a game plan; my game plan is to score as many points as possible,” Burroughs said. “Sometimes that’s difficult, because those guys have game plans. ... I just keep firing off what I have, continue to improve positions and have fun. He’s a world silver medalist, he’s wrestled well at every worlds, and he was a formidable opponent for me.”
It’s been a challenging time for Burroughs, a three-time world champion who entered the Rio Games favored to win gold in the 74 kg. weight class but came away without a medal after two surprising losses. The 28-year-old credits his family, including wife Lauren and two small children, and his Christian faith with affirming his self-belief.
“It was easy to decide to want to (continue to) wrestle, but it was hard to get back to a place where I felt good about what I was doing, confident in my abilities,” Burroughs said. “It was not only a pride, but a soul and identity shaking experience for me. A lot changed in the last six months in how I viewed myself, how I viewed my life in the sport, how I viewed everything outside of it.”
“It’s still a struggle even today,” he continued. “Not a day goes by without me thinking about Rio, what I could have done differently in those two matches to change my fate. It’s still difficult, but I’m surviving, I’m still happy.”
In additional to Maroulis, Snyder and Burroughs, Team USA wrestlers won eight of the nine other international matches. For the many of them, BTS was a tune-up for the 2017 U.S. Men’s Freestyle World Team Trials, to be held next month at University of Nebraska, where Burroughs was a three-time All-American and two-time undefeated national champion.
“I’m going to continue what I do best and have the confidence my best stuff is better than their best stuff,” Burroughs said. “That’s all I ever do. Fortunately it’s worked out for me on a number of occasions, sometimes it hasn’t, but you don’t question your preparation because of one failure.”