NEW YORK -- Harbor breezes and picturesque skyline views did nothing to cool competitive fires at Beat the Streets’ “Rumble on the River,” held Thursday at Pier 17 in the historic Seaport District of lower Manhattan.
Bragging rights — sometimes, nearly as precious as gold — were on the line as the best wrestlers in the U.S. squared off against standouts from Cuba, Italy, Nigeria and Azerbaijan. The sellout crowd and post-event gala is expected to raise a cool million for Beat the Streets (BTS), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to developing the full potential of at-risk urban youth through the life lessons of grit, personal responsibility and teamwork learned through wrestling.
“These are all Olympic-caliber wrestlers, going at it hard, going for the wins,” BTS founder and chairman Mike Novogratz said. “One of my missions in life is to bring energy to the sport of wrestling. This will get the sparks flying.”
“Rumble on the River” was an exhibition, but all of the wrestlers took it very seriously. No one wanted to lose.
And the U.S. wrestlers won nine of the 11 international matches.
“There are marquee match-ups and great athletes in every single weight class,” U.S. men’s freestyle head coach Bill Zadick said. “There are no such things as friendly matches.”
Although they prevailed in the end, three U.S. Olympic champions had to dig deep to fend off scrappy opponents.
When he won the 2018 AAU Sullivan Award as the country’s best amateur athlete last month, Kyle Snyder vowed, “I just want to become as dominant as I possibly can, to where no one in the world can wrestle with me.” But on Thursday, the Rio gold medalist got all he could handle from Cuba’s two-time world silver medalist Reineris Salas Perez, who led 8-3 lead after the first period.
A determined Snyder had to scramble furiously to score several 2-point takedowns in the second period to edge his opponent 9-8.
“Salas is a good athlete, he has good leg defense. I think next time I can beat him much worse than I did this time, but it was a good effort,” Snyder said. “If anyone wants to come to my weight, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been here three years, anyone who wants to come in, I welcome everybody. But every time I wrestle someone, I learn more about them.”
Like other top U.S. freestyle wrestlers, Snyder will compete in Final X next month to earn a spot on the U.S. team competing at the 2018 world wrestling championships in Budapest, Hungary, in October.
“The first step is always to make the team,” Snyder said. “Then in the summer it’s train as hard as you can, believe in yourself, be consistent, keep your faith strong and then everything is good.”
For Jordan Burroughs, the match was personal: he and Frank Chamizo, a two-time world champion and Olympic medalist from Italy, trash-talked each other on social media and had a not-too-friendly shirtless stare down at the pre-event press conference. The brash Italian tweeted, “I know you’re scared of me.” Ever the showman, Burroughs tweeted back, “I’m done talking. Let’s wrestle.”
Wrestle they did, with Chamizo — who recently bumped up his weight class to compete with Burroughs at 74 kilograms — blocking and countering Burroughs’ offense and gaining a 4-0 lead after two 2-point takedowns in the first period. The second period was a different story: Burroughs countered with his own takedowns, racking up points in the closing 45 seconds of the match to take an 8-5 victory.
“Chamizo is tough, I’ll probably see him again in October,” Burroughs said. “I’ve got to work on finishing, disciplining myself despite the circumstances today like a wet mat and a prepared opponent. I’ll be back to work on Monday getting ready for the Final X.”
Burroughs thought Chamizo would likely stay in the 74 kg. weight class and contend for a medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“He literally lulls you to sleep, bro,” Burroughs said. “He looks tired, and I’m like, ‘Is he tired, or just waiting for me to do something crazy?’ He’s a good wrestler, I can’t take that away from him … The bottom line is you have to be able to beat the best guys on their best days.”
For Helen Maroulis, the evening marked a return to health. The 2016 Olympic champion, who has lost just a single match in competition the last three years, squared off against Nigeria’s 2015 world bronze medalist Odunayo Adekuoroye in her first outing since suffering a concussion during an exhibition team event in January in India.
Maroulis’ four-month recovery process had her working with specialists in Colorado, California and New York. She was cleared to restart training on April 15, but doctors would not let her compete at the Pan American Championships earlier this month. She wasn’t officially cleared for competition until a few days before the “Rumble on the River.”
“It was a lot of hands-on rehab,” Maroulis said. “Training had to be monitored, but it was also round-the-clock — I had to think, ‘If I do an hour’s practice, how many conversations do I get to have now for the rest of the day?’ Because everything you do uses your brain. And then you also have to train your brain to build it up, to get back to normal. So it was, ‘I’m going to the coffee shop today for 20 minutes, and next week I’ll sit there for 30 minutes.’”
While Adekuoroye mounted a strong defense, Maroulis gained strength as the match went on and wore down her opponent, winning 4-1.
“A couple months ago I really had a fear I might never be able to wrestle again, or maybe I would be able to wrestle but I would never be able to be myself again,” Maroulis said. “I really felt frustrated. I love how wrestling feels for me, and I couldn’t find that for a while throughout the concussion rehab, so this is a blessing.”
Like Snyder and Burroughs, Maroulis is looking forward to Final X next month.
“This is definitely good preparation,” she said. “I needed this environment to remember how it feels, remember what I need to do to get in my good space.”
Beat the Streets’ mission is also Maroulis’ calling. The Rockville, Maryland, native relocated to Jersey City, New Jersey, a half-hour’s drive outside of Manhattan, a year ago to join BTS as a student-athlete mentor and coach educator. A visit to a refugee camp in Greece after the world championships last year inspired her to develop a wrestling training program for refugee children.
“I kind of reached out to BTS and asked, ‘Can you help me? I want to write this program,’” she said. “We kind of joined forces. It’s really been life changing to see daily what the staff is doing, how committed they are, how involved they are, doing things we don’t see and hear about.
“Eventually I want to take this program out to the world and they are all about it. I think Beat the Streets should become global. It’s so amazing when I talk to wrestling coaches in other countries and they all say, ‘I wish we had BTS, I wish we had BTS.’