Rutgers senior Richie Lewis kicks off his return to wrestling with U23 World Team Trials title

By Taylor Miller, USA Wrestling | Oct. 17, 2017, 1:58 p.m. (ET)

Photo: Lewis celebrates a win in a dual against Lehigh. Photo by Will Schneekloth (Rutgers Athletics).

Richie Lewis surprised many in early-October when he won a spot on the U.S. U23 Freestyle World Team, but he did not surprise himself.

It was the first competition for the Rutgers senior after sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury early in the 2016-17 NCAA season.  

“My coaches and I wanted to see where I was at competitively,” Lewis said. “We knew I could wrestle in practice, but we wanted to see if I could put matches and tournaments together. It worked out. Being injured and not able to compete really gave me a different perspective on competition. I’m grateful that I’m healthy and grateful for the opportunity to compete. It was definitely very exciting.”

Despite his limited freestyle experience, Lewis went in to the tournament with a goal of putting himself on the freestyle map and building some hype before entering Senior-level next year. That he did.

He competed in a loaded 70 kg/154 lbs. bracket, where he defeated three NCAA Division I All-Americans en route to the crown.

After surpassing Grant Zamin in the first round with an 11-0 technical fall, Lewis met up with three-time All-American and 2017 NCAA runner-up for Missouri, Lavion Mayes. On a roll, Lewis defeated Mayes with an easy 10-1 decision.

Next up was freestyle veteran and Oklahoma State All-American Anthony Collica, who was the 2015 University Nationals freestyle champion and two-time Junior Freestyle national champion. Once again, Lewis powered his way to the next round, recording a 10-3 win to put him in the best-of-three finals series.

“My confidence was high throughout the tournament. My emotions didn’t change after those wins,” Lewis said. “Those guys were 149-pounders and I’m a pretty big 157, so I was just as confident going into those matches as I was coming out of those matches.”

Waiting for Lewis in the finals was Big Ten foe and 2017 All-American Tyler Berger, who is entering his junior year at Nebraska. The two have met several times in collegiate competition with Lewis holding a 3-0 series advantage.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but Berger and I have a pretty intense rivalry,” Lewis said. “We get along as competitors but at the same time, we’re competitors. I like rolling with that cat. He’s a tough dude and he makes me better as a wrestler because I know every time I go into a match with him, I’m going to have to fight.”

In the first match of the finals series, Lewis held a 1-0 lead at the break with a passivity point. In the second period, he piled on the points, scoring two takedowns and a step out. Late in the match, he gave up a takedown but held on for a 6-2 win.

In the second bout, Lewis got to his offense early, scoring three takedowns in the first period to create an insurmountable 6-0 lead over Berger at the break. He scored once more in the second period with a step-out point for a 7-1 win and a spot on the U23 World Team.

“Those matches just showed that my perseverance and training regimen have been great. I’ve jumped levels. When I wrestled him last time, I beat him by a takedown at the Big Ten tournament, and this time, I’m taking him down two or three times. Overall, it just tells me that I’m doing the right things,” Lewis said.

Now with a bid to the World Championships, Lewis has one goal.

“Wherever I go, I want to win gold. That’s what’s on my mind,” Lewis said. “I need to put together some good tactics and good strategies to make that happen. Personal growth is something huge I want to come out of it. I want to have a great experience, learn and become the best Richie Lewis I can become.”

The New Jersey native will head to Bydgoszcz, Poland, for his first international competition and will represent the Red, White and Blue at the U23 World Championships Nov. 21-26, but before that, he’s got some things in his own backyard to take care of.

Lewis and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights will open their 2017-18 season with an historic match against Maryland in Yankee Stadium known as “Big Ten Battle in the Bronx” on Nov. 4. It will be the first wrestling dual hosted inside Yankee Stadium, which will be held prior to the Rutgers vs. Maryland football game.

As of now, Lewis is also eyeing the Journeymen Duals on Nov. 11 in Albany, N.Y.

“I’m the kind of guy that focuses on one thing at a time. Right now, I’m focused on Nov. 4, which is when we wrestle Maryland at Yankee Stadium. I have to be there for my team. To me, that’s just as important as the World tournament.”

The Scarlet Knight senior had to take a different path than he originally plan for his collegiate career, but he’s thankful that the winding road eventually led him to Rutgers.

To start his journey in college wrestling, Lewis took the junior college route and wrestled for JUCO powerhouse Iowa Central. He was a two-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-American, taking second and third, respectively.

He came to Rutgers in the 2015-16 season and put together an impressive season, going 27-7 and finishing fifth at the Big Ten Championships. His 2016-17 campaign was cut short due to injury but he was able to use his redshirt, and now he’s back for his senior year.

With a newfound confidence, Lewis said he’s excited to get back to the NCAA grind once U23 Worlds are over.

“I’m feeling really confident and I’m looking forward to having some great battles,” he said. “I feel like in my weight class, that are a lot of guys packed together, but I’m looking to separate myself. I watched these guys in the semis and become All-Americans last year. I watched them wrestle and that was hard to deal with, especially after a surgery because you never know what’s going to happen. You might never be able to compete again. That’s something that went through my head and I had to stay patient.  I just had to keep working hard, and through that, I found a belief system in myself that I never thought I had. I built up my confidence, and I think it’s really concrete now and it’s showing.”