Wrestling author relives his experience of returning to coach at summer camp

Updated: September 1, 2022

Photos: With the help of a mirror, wrestling author and coach Daniel Harding took a selfie before attending his first Ken Chertow camp in 15 years in Altoona, Pa.

By Daniel Harding Jr.

My feet lifted from the Resilite and my body was thrust three feet in the air. Time seemed to stop as I fell back to the mat. It was one of those freeze-frame moments that I asked myself, “Dan, what the heck are you doing at wrestling camp?”

At 32, I stay in shape enough to coach a high school and youth team in Connecticut. But my day job as a writer has me pushing a mouse more often than the weights. But still, there I was a decade and a half after my last Chertow camp as an athlete being mat returned by veteran national champ and staff coach Chris Cardella in front of a group of 40 to 60 kids ages 9 to 14.

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I was invited to return to the camp — a chapter in my life I had long ago put to bed — after reconnecting with Ken Chertow when working on my book Elite Youth Wrestling. At first, I thanked Ken, who started the camps in 1994, for the kind offer but surely my career, family obligations and my son (who at two years old is not quite of wrestling age) wouldn’t allow for it. How would that conversation with my wife and boss even go? “Hey, any objection to me going to summer camp?”

As the months passed, my mentality started to shift. As a new high school coach, I gave a flier for the camp to my athletes to gauge their interest in attending. Four of my most promising wrestlers expressed an interest right away.

I thought back to my experience as a camper and how those camps were major contributors in helping both my brother and I reach our high school goals. I thought about the notebooks I would fill with technique tips and tricks.

Surely a week surrounded by great coaches would be the master class in technique that I could bring back to my team in Connecticut. I sent Ken a text: “Hey Coach, I’m in.”

It’s a six-hour drive from where I live to the Blair County Convention Center in Altoona, Pa. Connecticut doesn’t allow you to coach your athletes in the off-season except for at large camps like this. So, I’ll admit, while once I was dreading it, it was fun to reconnect with my wrestlers.

Arriving at the convention center they were energized, all seemingly talking a mile a minute and cracking each other up. Standing in the registration line and seeing kids with Super 32 shirts, Iowa gear and youngsters with a cauliflower ear, they started to realize, “we’re not in Connecticut anymore.”

During the camp itself, I would check in on them regularly, but I also wanted to give them the space they needed to practice and learn away from the prying eyes of their coach. Besides, Chertow’s camp system boasts a high coach/camper ratio and they needed to learn from other coaches.

Ken Chertow has changed little since I last saw him. Ever a tour de force, he still possesses an energy that his fellow coaches and campers feed off. His coaching staff is a mix of collegiate athletes and the familiar faces of coaches who have been with him from his days as a stand-out at Penn State and an Olympian to today.

College coaches Blake Roulo, John Stutzman and John Clark kept an eye out for prospects while serving as lead instructors. There was also an ever-revolving door of guest clinicians such a Kylie Welker, A.J. Schopp, C.J. Redd and many others. The headline guest who stole the show was Zain Retherford who offered technique advice, inspiration, and signed posters. My four athletes cared about their signed posters more than I’ve seen teenagers care about much else.

These coaches and the fresh clinicians are part of the recipe that has allowed Chertow’s camps — one of the longest running — to continue to attract athletes from around the country, as well as some international athletes. Without a college affiliation (though he’ll never let you forget that Penn State is his alma matter), he’s free to tap talent from anywhere.

The other ingredient that makes a Chertow camp unique that I appreciate so much more with adult eyes, is his curriculum. He works the athletes hard — there’s no doubt about that — but it’s broken up into three sessions a day, and there is as much emphasis on live wrestling as there is drilling and learning new technique.

Back in my day, when you walked to school uphill both ways, Ken would preach the value of being a scholar-athlete. Those values seem to have found a renewed emphasis. Throughout the week at camp, Ken’s partner/girlfriend Beth would read from the essays campers wrote about how wrestling is training for the rest of your life.

You could hear a fly land on the mat as Beth read the essay from a female athlete who lost her mom to a terminal illness just a week before camp began. She wrote about how wrestling gave her the tools to deal with such a hardship. The kids, from 7 to 17, hung on every word.

That’s the thing about a Chertow camp. Once you think you know what to expect, something changes. It helps keep the program fresh.

In all, my week coaching at the camp was a blur, a through-the-legs-and-out-the-back scramble. Just as I found myself in a routine, the week of camp was over, and it was time to get back to the real world. Overall, even though my colleagues will never understand it, I enjoyed my vacation to Altoona, Pa. It brought me back to a simpler time when wrestling was king.

Driving home to Connecticut, I spent hours laughing as my athletes recounted their experiences. They sounded like me and my brother yammering while our parents drove us home about our favorite coaches and least favorite meals or joking about how Ken would constantly make us do sets of 5 or 10 sit-ups.

Sitting on the deck with my wife when I got home, she asked, “so, was it worth it?” That’s when I got a text from one of the kids who thought he left something in my truck. His text ended with, “Thank you again for everything u did for us this week. It was a great experience. 5 sit-ups!”

Yup, it was absolutely worth it.