BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Robert Howard’s dream was to win a gold medal at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018. For nearly every spectator at Asia Pavilion during his gold-medal match Sunday night, the dream was the opposite.
Howard, a U.S. wrestler, was facing Argentinian Hernan David Almendra, a host country favorite.
“They were loud even with the little stuff, like when nothing was happening and they would get really loud real quick. It was like, oh, am I doing something bad, what do they see?” Howard recalled. “So, it was distracting. I probably didn’t do a very good job blocking it out, so props to them; they got me a little bit off my game.”
By “off his game,” Howard meant still-good-enough-to-win-a-gold-medal-but-not-quite-untouchable.
He prevailed over both Almendra and the deafening crowd, winning 17-6 and claiming the 55 kg. gold medal.
“It’s been a goal for a long time. I’ve been preparing,” Howard said of winning Youth Olympic gold. “I knew I had a lot of tough kids to face here, and I knew I was going to have to go through one, if not all, of them to win my gold medal here. I was prepared to do that this week.”
In the final, Howard came out hot, scoring six times and earning 11 points in the first period while Almendra only notched two.
Almendra fired back in the second with a four-point throw, but Howard had three more two-point moves, winning by technical fall.
“I maybe let my guard down a little bit. He gave me a couple good headlocks, but every day in the room at training it’s: Don’t panic. Relax.”
It was the highest scoring match of the 15 men’s freestyle classification matches, which took place on the final day of wrestling in Buenos Aires.
“The crowd was live. It plays a factor. I didn’t think it was going to play much of a factor, but it was a little bit of a factor. But I have nothing but respect for this country. I’ve had a great time while I’m down here, so to wrestle against him in the final I had to show him some respect was due,” Howard said.
Howard competed at the cadet world championships in early July in Zagreb, Croatia, finishing ninth. He left hungry for redemption in Argentina.
Howard even spoke to 2014 Youth Olympic silver medalist Daton Fix in his preparation, to find out what to expect at the Games.
He handily won his two preliminary-round matches earlier in the day, defeating Hayato Fujita of Japan by tech fall, 13-2, and Ukraine’s Vladyslav Ostapenko 10-5.
Both wins give him confidence for the future, with Fujita the cadet world silver medalist and Ostapenko the European cadet champion. And with Youth Olympic gold in his possession, his sights are already set high for next year’s worlds.
“I’m coming for the world gold medal,” Howard proclaimed. “I beat the world finalist in my bracket, 13-2, and then two years ago the only kid to tech me in freestyle is the Ukrainian, who’s here in my bracket, and I beat him 10-5. Make no mistake – next cadet worlds, a gold medal.”
One resource that will help him reach that goal is the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he’s been attending camps.
“I try to go out there as much as I can,” Howard said with enthusiasm. “You get to be around not just wrestlers but the best people in sport – see what they’re doing, how they work. It’s awesome to be able to look to your left, see Kyle Dake, look to your right, see Jordan Burroughs. It’s a great learning experience, and every time I go out there I look forward to it.”
For now, though, Howard will bask in the glory of being a Youth Olympic champion and look back fondly on his time in Buenos Aires, which was highlighted by a visit to a sister school of the Catholic high school he attends in New Jersey, where he demonstrated wrestling in front of nearly 400 students.
“It’s really breathtaking,” Howard said of the Games. “My experience has been nothing but awesome. Visiting the school was an experience I’ll never forget, and to end it with a gold medal is honestly a dream come true.”