Photo of Zo El Ouarraqe (right) with Daton Fix by Team V Sports Performance.
Meet Zoheir El Ouarraqe, a native of Paris, France, who uprooted his life to move to Stillwater, Okla., where he has made a huge impact on the campus of one of the most successful Division I programs, Oklahoma State.
Lovingly known as Zo, he was a four-time World Team member for France as well as a 2014 European Championships bronze winner.
In 2015, Zo traveled to the U.S. for the first time to compete at the World Championships, which were hosted in Las Vegas. In preparation, he went to Stillwater, where he did a camp with six-time World and Olympic champion and five-time NCAA championship coach John Smith. His primary partner at the camp? 17-year-old Daton Fix.
“For the first go, after we shook hands, we just went super live,” Zo said. “It was natural competition. We just wanted to know who is the best. We went super hard. Right after practice, we had a conversation about how it was so fun and we can’t wait to go again. We became friends like that.”
After the camp, Smith asked Zo to come train full-time at Oklahoma State, but due to his contract with the French wrestling federation, Zo had to decline. A little over two years later, he reached out to the OSU staff and was flown out to train in Stillwater.
“My first thought was to come to the U.S. and [train myself as well as coach others],” Zo said. “I was still practicing, but at the same time, I was learning how to be a coach. I know here in the U.S. a lot of guys do both, so why not me? My federation agreed with that and that it would be a good experience. I was doing pretty well, but the fact is that I came here to train with Daton, too.”
Fix won the 2017 Junior World title shortly beforee Zo’s arrival. With both Zo and Fix at the same weight class (57 kg/125.5 lbs.), Zo’s thought process began to shift.
“We’re very close, and we started thinking about it, what if he is No. 1 for the U.S. and we have to wrestle each other?” Zo said. “I just didn’t feel it, so I decided to give 100 percent to Daton to help him become No. 1, and if he becomes No. 1 at Final X, then officially I’m going to retire. But if he lost, I would’ve gone just a little bit more. He was doing well and I was so glad for that. I just wanted to help him get better and better and better.”
In collaboration with Coach Smith and Fix’s dad, Derek, Zo worked relentlessly to not only help Fix become No. 1 in the United States but also to reach new levels as a coach. He also had the opportunity to work with several other high-caliber athletes such as Final X runner-up Alex Dieringer, All-American Nick Piccininni and 2016 Olympic champion Helen Maroulis.
Learning from Smith, who has been at the helm of the Cowboy Wrestling program since 1992, helped Zo to develop into a better coach as well as a better person.
“John is the boss, so every time he’s around, we do what John thinks is good for us. John has 29 years of coaching, so he knows what will work quick,” Zo said. “With John I’ve learned on the mat and outside of the mat. Everything he’s taught me isn’t just about being a good coach, it’s about being a better man.”
In 2019, Fix climbed to the top of the U.S. National Team ladder, defeating 2017 World silver medalist Thomas Gilman in Final X to earn the chance to represent the U.S. at the Senior World Championships in Kazakhstan at 57 kg.
By Fix’s side the whole way was Zo.
With Fix winning the World Team spot, that meant that Zo would get to travel with him to the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru as well as the World Team Training Camp in Germany prior to the World Championships. Zo took advantage of his opportunities to travel with Team USA, watching closely and learning from U.S. National Team Coaches Bill Zadick and Joe Russell.
“Being behind the scenes, you can learn and see how the Bill Zadick and Joe Russell talk to the athletes. That was important for me to learn that,” Zo said. “I already know John Smith’s vision. It doesn’t matter how much it takes, you got to find a way to win. That’s the Cowboy Way. That’s how we do every practice, so I know the Cowboy Way. To be around Bill Zadick and Joe Russell, they take more time with the athletes to talk about what they have to do, how they feel. It’s a little bit deeper, and it works pretty well. They are very aware about every athlete and everything they need to be No. 1. So it was definitely a good time for me to be around the National coaches and learn how they manage those guys.”
Overall the 2019 international season made a lasting impression on Zo.
“USA Wrestling is one of my greatest memories right now after this last summer,” he said. “I’ve traveled a lot before and worked with some great wrestlers, but USA Wrestling was way different. It was pretty impressive. I’ve never seen anything like that, not even in Russia. Every day, people were smiling, even if they were cutting a lot of weight. Good relationships were formed. It was an amazing experience to see how hungry the athletes were to win, and how close they were, even if they lived far from each other.”
While his original plan was to spend only three or four years in the U.S., the 29-year-old is currently working to get permanent residency and continue to grow as a coach.
“I just love Stillwater, Oklahoma. I love to be a part of this program. I love being a Cowboy,” Zo said. “I definitely have a great life here. I have so much family and friends here, and I don’t want to leave. My goal is to have 10 Daton Fixes or 20 of them. We have great wrestlers, a great program and a lot of people love wrestling here. I want to help make Oklahoma State great again.”