Some elite preps choosing freestyle route

Updated: August 8, 2011

By Bryan Van Kley, WIN Publisher

I’m hopeful our young U.S. freestyle team will create some momentum next month at the Worlds in Turkey. Winning a number of matches and at least a couple medals will set the U.S. up to do well at the Olympics in London in 2012. I fully believe we’re in the process of establishing ourselves again as one of the world leaders in freestyle. I’m confident of that because USA Wrestling is now working to overcome the obstacles that the U.S. has faced internationally.

The biggest obstacle is that our folkstyle system no longer prepares our top athletes for World-level success in freestyle the way it used to. Our ability to win World-level gold the last decade has plummeted from the success we had in the 1980s and 1990s (see chart). For a long stretch, it was Russia (U.S.S.R.) and the United States on top of the freestyle world, with a number of other countries like Iran and Cuba vying for third. That’s not the case any more.

A number of variables have changed. The biggest of which is the international governing body FILA’s rule changes about six years ago. The old rules played well into our strengths: matches could be dominated by takedowns alone and conditioning played a big factor with longer periods. Matches now often are decided in two two-minute periods and the one-point pushout rule has totally changed wrestling from the neutral position.

Our top wrestlers are so far behind their peers from other countries by the time they graduate college. To win NCAA titles, these blue-chip collegians focused on folkstyle on a nearly year-round basis for their four to five years in college while their foreign counterparts continued to progress in freestyle.

USA Wrestling now has a plan in place through the Resident Development Program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs that helps with our freestyle development. And the increased focus on freestyle will happen while still allowing the top Americans to pursue their goals of winning NCAA titles.

“To beat the Russians, we must start really focusing on development,” U.S. Resident Freestyle Coach Brandon Slay said. “We’re just finally saying that if we’re going to beat those guys we have to realize that system works and we’ve got to learn from that. Collegiate wrestling used to be a fairly good developmental program for international wrestling. Now not only is it not fairly good, it can hurt their development.”

Point in case, 2011 NCAA champion Dustin Kilgore of Kent State. Kilgore went to the Olympic Training Center this spring after winning his first NCAA title in March. At the OTC, he’d get in on an opponent on the edge of the mat, then instinctively drag him back into the middle like he’s programmed to do on the college mat. The freestyle coaches then instructed just the opposite. When Kilgore got an opponent near the edge, they wanted him to get the easy point and push his opponent out.

And it’s because of these unique challenges that USA Wrestling was willing to make a dramatic shift in the way they prepare our elite athletes for Olympic and World competition.

The United States Olympic Committee officially supported USA Wrestling’s plan for the Resident Development Program earlier this year. It’s basically similar training to what Olympic-level athletes go through on a year-round basis at the OTC in their mid-20s, but it’s available to elite wrestlers in their mid to upper teens.

National Development Coach Bill Zadick, Slay and newly-hired Resident Development Coach Bobby Douglas are recruiting many of the same talented preps that colleges are after.

These coaches are encouraging the top kids to consider living at the OTC for a year before starting college or for a period of time while they’re in a high school. Increased time training exclusively freestyle against the top guys in the U.S. and international competition when they go on tours will give them the best chance of reaching both NCAA and Olympic goals.

There’s currently about 10 high schoolers or recent grads training full time at the OTC. A typical day includes two practices with the Senior-level freestyle team with additional age-specific workouts with either Zadick or Douglas. Resident Development athletes are also able to go on international tours and participate in other U.S. and international camps which provide invaluable freestyle training and competition.

Some top preps choosing this training route are the top-ranked guys at 152 and 215, Minnesota’s Destin McCauley and Idaho’s Tanner Hall. In addition, Cadet World Team member Dalton Brady (AZ) and Cadet Nationals champ Chance Marsteller (PA) also trained in Colorado Springs this summer.

Each kid’s situation is a bit different. McCauley and Hall have both graduated. McCauley signed a national letter of intent at the University of Wisconsin, Hall has not. Brady, who is going to be a sophomore this fall, will be enrolling in a Colorado Springs-area high school but living at the OTC similar to what 2008 Olympic champion Henry Cejudo did in high school. Marsteller, a Pennsylvania state champ as a freshman who was also OW in Cadet freestyle in Fargo, is considering a number of options as he pursues a shot at making the 2012 Olympic Team (see story on page 16).

Others like Jordan and Chandler Rogers of Washington and Michigan’s Taylor Massa are highly-ranked high schoolers who spent significant time at the OTC this summer but will return to their homestate for the 2011-2012 school year.

Slay knows college coaches are taking a risk allowing their blue-chip athletes to go to the OTC for a year before starting college.

“It’s a risk-reward thing. He could get injured. He could end up loving freestyle. There’s a risk that a John Smith or Kevin Jackson could lure them to another college,” Slay said. “The reward is that if you continue to build that relationship you’re going to get a much better product (in year two.)”

Slay said the vision of developing the top kids early in freestyle is going to take time.

“That’s why Russia won four gold medals last year at the World Championships and had seven medals. We have to have a vision in our program that’s not just focused on London. Our developmental guys are more 2016 guys. In our developmental program we have to have a patient vision long term.”

Slay and the staff were encouraged by a recent international tour to Ukraine for a tough Senior-level tournament. Slay overheard national team member Phil Simpson (66kg) saying he couldn’t believe the experience kids like McCauley were getting at 18 years of age at an event like that against top-level European competitors. Simpson said he had “no idea even what was going on” in the wrestling world when he was 18.

Will this new path to Olympic success be accepted by high school and college coaches, and the top kids in their programs? Time will tell. Slay says time is exactly what it’s going to take to start producing gold medals again.

“We need to prove that that system works. I don’t think it’s going to happen fast,” the former University of Pennsylvania graduate and NCAA finalist said. He added that the perception also has to change.

“The sad thing is that we’re not competing against colleges for these kids. It’s not an either or, it’s a both (freestyle and college wrestling). We’re telling kids they can do both.” n