Photo: The 50th annual Junior/U16 (Cadet) Nationals did not take place this week because of COVID-19, but it’s a good time to look back how wrestlers, coaches and officials made their annual trek to Fargo, N.D. In 2014, Mike Clayton (left) and Steve Fraser of USA Wrestling took a special motorcycle trip from Colorado Springs, Colo., to the Junior/Cadet Nationals. These two program directors of USA Wrestling have put on countless miles that have led to producing youth wrestling clinics.
Written by Jim Nelson
The first time Steve Fraser went on an off-road, over-night motorcycle trip with USA Wrestling co-worker Mike Clayton, Clayton tried to chop off Fraser’s right arm with a machete.
“Mike has this thing about snakes,” Fraser said, now able to laugh about a moment that happened and set the tone for future rides between these former wrestlers.
This is where Clayton — the 1995 U.S. Naval Academy graduate and NCAA Wrestling Championship qualifier, who now manages USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Program (NCEP) — takes over the story.
After seven years as head coach at Division III Stevens Tech in Hoboken, N.J., just outside of New York City, where motorcycle riding is rare, Clayton’s move to Colorado Springs for his new job brought about exciting possibilities and the desire to buy a BMW Enduro bike.
“I found out Steve was a rider, Tony Black and Bill Zadick were all riders,” Clayton recalls. “With all these guys in the office who are riders, I thought maybe we should try to do a trip to Fargo and promote USA Wrestling along the way.”
After getting approval, Clayton and Fraser — the first American wrestler to win Olympic gold in Greco-Roman wrestling when he won gold in 1984 in Los Angeles and later the World championship Greco coach for Team USA — ended up being the only takers for the trip to the 2014 Fargo Nationals.
Winding through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, and holding clinics for each state’s respective national teams and then working at Fargo, the duo had a great time promoting wrestling and exploring hard-to-get places.
It wasn’t until the trip back that the story got really interesting.
First, Fraser, who left ahead of Clayton, ran out of gas on an Indian reservation in North Dakota. After several cars drove past, the stranded motorcyclist was finally picked up by a young man who drove him 15 miles back to town to get gas and then 15 miles back to his motorcycle.
“He was a wrestler and had seen my USA wrestling sticker,” Fraser says. “It is a small world and you meet fellow wrestlers all over the country, all over the world for that matter. It’s a special bond between wrestlers and our extended wrestling family.”
Shortly after his misfortune, Fraser met back up with Clayton where on their final stop in Wyoming before getting back to Colorado Springs, imaginary snakes attacked Clayton.
“We found this beautiful lakeside camping spot, nobody was there,” Clayton said. “It was a perfect setting. The sun was going down, we had our bikes lined up, and then I noticed all these holes in the ground, so I pulled out my ground cover.
“Steve says, ‘Hey, what you doing with that?’ I said there were a lot of snake holes so I’m putting down the ground cover and at least they won’t pop right up by my sleeping bag.”
Shortening the story, Fraser doesn’t have a ground cover and he and Clayton decide Clayton’s is big enough for both of them to use, but then the story turns dangerous.
“When I’m back-country camping like we were, I will carry a machete,” Clayton said. “So, we are sleeping under the stars and I hear something rustling right by our heads and I’m thinking snake.
“I’m pulling out my machete and I get it about halfway into the air and all of a sudden Steve goes, ‘What are you doing?’ I say there is a snake and I’m going to get it. He responds, ‘I’m reaching for a water bottle.’
“So, I’ve been on the USA Wrestling staff for three months and I was just about to chop off the arm of an Olympic gold medalist. I wasn’t sure how that was going to play out back at the office.”
Six years later, Clayton and Fraser are still taking off-road motorcycle trips together. Fraser has turned in his Harley for a Triumph Tiger 800 he bought from former Iowa three-time national champion Lincoln McIlravy.
Some of those trips include official USA Wrestling business.
“During that trip to Fargo, I got to know Steve for the first time and hearing him talk about his story and that he got to college and he struggled,” Clayton said. “He struggled with grades and success on the mat. He talked to his mom and her advice was to work hard and be the best that he could.
“His message to the kids is the effort, the determination and the trying and the value in that you never know where that is going to take you. He gets to pass around this Olympic gold medal and he tells the kids to rub a little bit of luck off that medal.
“My perspective of watching him from the back, watching those kids look at that medal and how it helped them keep their focus and dreams, it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve been a part of in our sport. It was really neat.”
Fraser says he figures 5,000 kids have touched that medal through all the clinics and camps where he’s been a featured speaker.
“I like to get it out, because otherwise it is just sitting in a safe-deposit box,” Fraser said. “I like to get it out and let the kids touch it, feel it and dream a little bit. That is what it is for in my mind.”
More recently, Clayton and Fraser’s trips have been more for themselves.
Some of the duo’s most recent excursions have been on the Trans America Trail, a trail that stretches 5,000 miles through the lower 48 states, winding through Colorado and avoids paved paths as much as possible. The two have almost ventured through the entire Colorado portion and have plans to follow it all the way to Oregon.
“Usually, at least once a month and sometimes more often, we will get out and have a trip with at least one night of camping,” Clayton said.
“We are cutting through Colorado and I’ve seen stuff I never knew existed,” Fraser adds. “On these Enduro bikes we have, we really can get off track and that is what I love.
“And, you know, we are always talking wrestling stuff and how we can help kids. How we can better the sport.”
Clayton says Fraser has been an important resource for his job.
“For me to be able to pick his brain on the educational movements and directions, and to learn from his experience and what has worked is very valuable,” Clayton said. “We got one World title (2007 Greco-Roman team title in Baku, Azerbaijan) and he is the guy that put it together.”