| Gonzalez receiving the Outstanding Wrestler honor from referee Avi Schmuely
Photo: Justin Hoch, jhoch.com
Chris Gonzalez will step on the mat at 71 kg, donning the Red, White and Blue at the World level, something he’s been dreaming of.
The Sauk Village, Ill., native is somewhat new to Senior-level competition.
He began wrestling his freshman year of high school, thanks to his coach Jason Butler, who also encouraged him to try out Greco-Roman.
“I wasn’t really sure about it, but I did it anyway because I didn’t want to go straight home after school because my home life was rough. So wrestling became a way for me to stay busy,” Gonzalez said. “I just liked the style. I liked picking people up and putting them down real hard. It was just a good fit.”
Not only was wrestling a good fit, it was his savior.
“I really don’t know where I would be in life without wrestling,” Gonzalez said. “I grew up in a really rough neighborhood. A lot of my friends were getting into trouble or dangerous situations and I was heading down that same path. There were so many situations where I could have been with them getting expelled or getting shot at, but I was at wrestling practice. Thank God I wasn’t around, so wrestling saved my life in a way.”
He began training with 2012 Olympian and 2013 World Team member Ellis Coleman, going from a rookie wrestler to a competitive one and traveling to tournaments such as the Junior National Championships in Fargo, N.D.
He finished fourth twice at Fargo, a pattern that followed him in his Senior career until now.
“I was always on the cusp of making the finals or winning a tournament, but I was never really able to put it all together. I always ended up taking fourth or something like that,” Gonzalez said. “At the Olympic Trials, I had such a bad tournament that I contemplated stepping away and transitioning over to MMA, but after they changed the rules, I decided to give it one more shot and stick it out through the rest of the year to see if I could make something happen and I did.”
To make it happen at the Non-Olympic World Team Trials, he had to beat No. 1 seed Pat Smith, who he pinned in the semifinals, then face Alex Sancho, a former teammate and training partner.
The two trained together at Northern Michigan University, which was beneficial for Gonzalez as he picked up positions and moves from Sancho that have become his bread and butter techniques. Gonzalez now trains in Colorado Springs with the Army World Class Athlete Program and at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
Going up against Sancho in the best-two-of-three finals series didn’t faze Gonzalez for a second. He relied on his knowledge of Sancho’s wrestling to get through it.
“Every tournament I go to, there are guys I expect to face. Alex is one of those guys. I was ready to wrestle him. I think having trained with him for four years was definitely an advantage to me because I know what he likes to do. I didn’t really have to study him because I already had an idea of his strengths and weaknesses. Wrestling him wasn’t weird to me because I expected it so I went in with a game plan and tried to stick to it.”
Gonzalez dropped the first bout, 2-1, with Sancho scoring a first period takedown.
“I had nothing to lose. I stepped off the mat after the first match and told myself that this was the first Senior tournament that I made the finals in so I had to make it dramatic and win the next two matches. I was just really confident in my training,” Gonzalez said.
The tables turned in the second match as Gonzalez claimed a 2-1 victory and felt confident as ever heading into the rubber match.
In their final meeting of the day, Gonzalez led 2-1 late in the second period, with all points coming in the form of passivity penalties. He sealed the deal with a takedown at the end of the bout for a 4-1 win and a spot on the U.S. World Team.
“In the first match, it kind of got away from me, but the next two matches, I just knew exactly what I needed to do,” Gonzalez said. “I think training in the Colorado altitude is a huge advantage over those Northern Michigan guys because when I’m wrestling at sea level, I can just go. It looked like he was pretty tired after that first match and I felt fresh so I used that to my advantage. I just wrestled him tough.”
He was also named the event’s Outstanding Wrestler of the combined Bill Farrell International and the Non-Olympic World Team Trials.
Now with a short turnaround until he competes for a World title, Gonzalez is staying focused on what he does well and expanding in those areas.
“There is definitely not a lot of time to change anything so I’m just focusing on what I’ve been doing the last seven or eight months. My strength training is amazing. I know I’ll be coming in strong and well-conditioned. I’ll probably split my training between WCAP and the OTC. I have a huge support system and tons of great coaches around me,” Gonzalez said.
The 25-year-old is stepping into new territory, having wrestled in only one international tournament, the Eduardo Campbell Cup in Panama. Even then, most of his opponents were American and he only went up against one foreign athlete.
Despite the lack of international experience, Gonzalez is confident in his game plan.
“I’m just going to do what we do best as Americans and that’s push the pace. Those guys are technically sound but they don’t want to go six minutes with us. My plan is to go out there and be in their face the entire time and keep good positioning, not allowing them to get to that technique. I plan to go out there, represent my country and do it right,” he said.
The journey has been intense and difficult for Gonzalez, but reaching the goal made it all worth it to him. He’s enjoying his time in the spotlight.
“A lot of people have been telling me that it’s hard to get on top but it’s even more difficult to stay on top,” Gonzalez said. “Now that I’ve reached the top in the U.S., I want to stay here. I’ve always felt like I belonged on top, and I’ve always known I’ve been capable of it. I like the view up here. It’s nice.”