It’s mid-January and several top senior-level U.S. wrestlers in women’s, men’s freestyle, and Greco-Roman just finished competing at the Matteo Pellicone International in Rome, the first United World Wrestling Ranking Series event of 2020. Meanwhile, other senior-level wrestlers competed at the Grand Prix of France/Henri Deglane Challenge in Nice, France. And throughout February the best of the best wrestlers in all styles will convene at National Team Camps at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center (OPTC) in Colorado Springs.
International events and training camps are nothing new for senior-level wrestlers. They’re part of the regimen heading into an Olympic year, culminating with the U.S. Olympic Team Trials April 4–5 at the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State University. The champions from that event earn the right to represent the United States at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo August 2–8.
But while all of that is conventional, the life and training routine of an American senior-level wrestler is anything but. Most train in different locations with different coaches, and have different routines. Yet, at times, they all train together in the same locations. It’s really unique to any sport.
But they all have one common goal: To achieve their dream of Olympic success. We talked to some of the nation’s top wrestlers to get an inside look at how they’re preparing for the world stage.
Different Approach, Same Goal
“The day to day is slightly different for each athlete, but something we all share is that our whole day is based around our training,” says USA Senior National Greco-Roman Team member Josef Rau, the top-ranked Greco-Roman wrestler at 87 kg/191 pounds.
While U.S. Senior National team members competed in Rome, Rau and several other U.S. Greco-Roman Olympic hopefuls were in Denmark at a training camp with wrestlers from 16 other countries. As another example, J’den Cox, the top-ranked American freestyler at 92 kg/202.8 pounds, was in Colorado Springs at the OTC. Meanwhile Katherine Shai (No. 2 at 53 kg/116.5 pounds) left Rome for her home in Denver, where she trains on her own, or with her own coaches, setting her own schedule.
Shai is a six-time USA Senior National team member who thought her career was over after finishing third at the 2016 Olympic Team Trials (she also finished third in 2012), but she got that competitive vibe back in late 2018 and has been training full-time since. She most recently won a bronze medal at the Matteo Pellicone International in Rome, Italy. Shai and her husband Mike Shai also have a two-year old son, which has added another element to her training routine.
“There’s a theme with my training schedule,” Shai says. “That theme is, it’s always changing. What was supposed to be a morning run may turn into a late evening run. What was supposed to be a morning workout may turn into a short one-hour workout and be finished later. It doesn’t look the same every day, and even when I have a schedule all planned out, it can still change on the fly.”
Top wrestlers are training and preparing at Regional Training Centers, college campuses, high school wrestling rooms, and even MMA-focused clubs and gyms throughout the country.
Shai, a two-time Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association national champion for Menlo College (2009–2010) trained at the OTC in Colorado Springs from 2010–2016, and called it an “amazing experience and opportunity.”
But this Olympic cycle, she is exposing herself to different training opportunities. She works with an MMA coach, and has enjoyed the opportunity to train with Troy Nickerson and staff at the University of Northern Colorado Regional Training Center. Nickerson was a national champion at Cornell and is also head coach of the wrestling team at UNC.
“Coming back from pregnancy, I was looking for a place to wrestle,” Shai says. “I networked like crazy in Denver, and when I realized Troy Nickerson was coaching at Northern Colorado, I reached out. Previously, we competed at the Olympic Training Center together. Last fall, I started working out at Northern Colorado when I was getting back into shape. This has been in the works for a while, and all the pieces finally fell into place.
“They have a room full of great training partners for me and Troy has that men’s freestyle experience. So I’ve kept an open mind and have gone out to experience new people with new stories and lessons to share.”
Adeline Gray is taking a similar route. The seven-time world medalist, five-time World Champion and 2016 Olympian primarily trained at the OTC in 2016. But recently, she has traveled to train at national prep power Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, PA, as well as at Penn State, and local high schools in Littleton, CO, and Richmond Hill, GA. She’s participated in training camps at Stanford University, and in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Austria.
“I look for opportunities to learn from the world, coaches, and competitors,” says Gray. “My whole life I have been the type of wrestler that turns ‘on’ for competitions, so the training room has always been the place to slow the moves down and learn new things.”
Gray says the experience she gained at the 2016 Olympics has already helped her mentally prepare for a 2020 Olympics run.
“I’ve already experienced the pressures involved with being an Olympian,” Gray says. “As with most things, the second time around involves less of a learning curve than the unknown. In 2016 the competition didn’t go the way I had envisioned, but this time I have worked on overcoming some doubts that it placed in my mind. I have always been an optimist. I also believe that Japan will be a good fit for me, the food works with my dietary needs and the cleanliness, politeness and enthusiasm of the Japanese people is going to make it an amazing experience.”
Cox, meanwhile, has never gone overseas solely to train (he has as a competitor several times), and is focused on primarily training at the OTC. He also trains at the Air Force Regional Training Center (AFRTC) in Colorado Springs on the grounds of the United States Air Force Academy. And about once a month he heads to Ohio State University to train with members of the Ohio Regional Training Center, where he can train with other elite athletes and learn from coach Tervel Dlagnev, an eight-time U.S. National Team member and two-time World Bronze medalist.
In recent weeks, Cox has trained at the OTC with a wrestler from the Jamaican National team, with members of the Greco-Roman National Team, where he likes to get in some hand-fighting and positioning-focused workouts and with Dustin Kilgore at the AFRTC. Kilgore, a current volunteer assistant coach at Air Force and a coach with the AFRTC, was also a four-time USA National Team member.
Not Giving In to Hype
For Cox, the 2018 and 2019 World Champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, training is intense, but he keeps things in perspective this time of year.
“The key this time of year is to remember you can’t win the Trials today,” says Cox. “Bill Zadick (USA Wrestling Freestyle Head Coach) is always reminding us that yes it’s an Olympic year, but don’t let it overwhelm you. Stay focused on your training, diet, and getting rest. You really can’t worry about the Olympic Trials until the Olympic Trials are here.
“When I step on that scale and get ready for the Trials then that’s the most important day in the world. But don’t get so amped up that by the time you get there, you’re drained.”
When not overseas, Rau trains at the Wildcat Wrestling Club at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. An equally important part of Rau’s training is focusing on his diet and sleep schedule. Recovery is also a big part of his routine this time of the year. Stretching, cold tubs, and massages are important.
“There are a ton of things people are adjusting and working on this time of year,” Rau says. “But it is also important not to over-train in the heat of the Olympic year, which is a common mistake. A lot of pressure and anxiety comes along with this year that often results in doing more. For me I think it’s important to remind myself just to be smarter.
“There is so much extra you can do. It could be watching film or working on a part of your technical game or implementing meditation or something that keeps you centered. I think it’s okay to up the ante as long as you’re not hurting your body or mentally psyching yourself out because it’s an Olympic Year.”
Kyle Dake returned from the Matteo Pellicone International in Rome ready to get some rest. He turned in a dominant performance, winning a gold medal at 74 kg with an 11-0 win over Soner Demirtaş of Turkey. Dake, also the 2018 and 2019 World Champion, is the top-ranked men's freestyle wrestler at 79 kg/174.2 pounds. He lives close to the New York Regional Training Center at Cornell University in Ithaca.
Dake has a strong lineup of coaches and workout partners at Cornell, and also likes to bring in other athletes from around the country and world to train as often as possible. Because his competition schedule is limited until the Trials, Dake will set up some mock tournaments to prepare for the Olympic run. Between now and then he’s going to focus on rest, technique, and the mental aspect of the sport.
“I spend a great deal of time wrestling in my head, so when I actually get out there in practice or in a match I don’t need to think too much, I can let it unfold,” he says.
A lot is about to unfold in the coming months for America’s senior-level wrestlers. This is just a part of the journey. Learn more in part II of this Olympic preparation series which will publish on Thursday, February 13.