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Note: The following story appears in the May 6, 2020 issue of WIN Magazine. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN.
By Mike Finn, WIN Editor
The recent social distancing demands caused by COVID-19 certainly have not affected the communication pattern of wrestling friends Jude Swisher and Sam Herring.
That’s because communicating from a distance has never been an issue — especially for over a year — for Swisher, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from State College, Pa., and Herring, a 13-year-old seventh grader from Memphis, Tenn.
For despite the 900 miles between their hometowns, these young wrestlers have created a buzz since March of 2019 when they created Home Mat Advantage, a weekly wrestling podcast … and most recently were honored by WIN as the magazine’s 2020 Journalists of the Year.
“WIN Magazine is thrilled to have Sam and Jude as this year’s Journalist of the Year Award co-winners, our first ever ‘up-and-coming’ younger journalists to win the award,” said WIN Publisher Bryan Van Kley. “If fans listen to one episode of their podcast, they’ll be entertained and their passion and love for the sport is obvious. I hope they keep doing it for many years into the future!”
And what makes their podcasts — which can be found on most online platforms and YouTube — even more remarkable is that Swisher and Herring share their wrestling thoughts on timely issues from their individual homes to as many as 1,000 followers per episode.
“Jude and I have only met once — the Final X in Rutgers last summer — and I had never even seen his face before or since then,” said Herring, who added that the postponement of the Olympic Trials in April prevented a second in-person meeting. “The technology we have and all the benefits I have (family schedule) give us this opportunity.”
Both are highly-successful youth wrestlers. Swisher finished fourth for Bellefonte (Pa.) High School in this year’s PIAA state tournament at 126 pounds and trains at David Taylor’s M2 Training in State College. The 90-pound Herring has won six age-group state tournaments in Tennessee and will wrestle in high school at Christian Brothers College in Memphis. Herring also trains at the successful Young Guns Club in Johnstown, Pa., but that connection to the Keystone state had nothing to do with them meeting, much less creating HMA.
Because each have been home-schooled, that time flexibility allowed them to follow their wrestling passions and meet online.
“I joined Twitter, specifically to follow FloWrestling so I could ask questions on their podcast show,” Swisher recalled. “I would notice this kid was also on during the day. I asked him ‘Are you a kid?’ and ‘Are you home-schooled because you tweet all the time.’ And, ‘If you are an adult, you should be at work.’
“From that, we just started texting each other and it turned out we had a ton in common, from our faith to our favorite wrestlers and all the way to our home school curriculum. We developed a kinship and I texted him for three months, starting in October of 2018 and I started throwing out the idea of a podcast in January 2019. At first, it was more of a joke, but then I used my birthday money to buy a (microphone) and some air pods and we started recording stuff.”
“It (the first show) was bad,” Swisher added. “We didn’t know what we were doing. It was after episode 2 that I realized this was a commitment where we’d have another show a week after that and a week after that …
“I wasn’t good, but the more I did it, I said to myself that I’m going to get better. That’s also when I said to myself that I’m in it for the long run. With the goal in mind this was not the final product, we realized we have a long way to go, (to) stay humble and able to keep growing and get better.”
“I went back and listened to our first podcast and I feel I’ve learned so much about doing this and have been able to prepare better, which helped me relate to our wrestlers a little bit better,” said Herring. “We’ve also had so much help from many mentors who helped us get here like (photographer) Tony Rotundo and the Flo guys.”
Even though neither receive any money, they handle Home Mat Advantage as a business. HMA has drawn big names like Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Snyder to the show, and has added both a weekly interview and fantasy podcast and additional unpaid employees.
“I’ve also learned so much about life in interacting with people and how to manage a little bit of a business,” Herring added. “Even though there is no money in this, we are trying to get practice with managing a business so that when we get older, we will have been in this situation.”
Meanwhile, their ever-growing audience is older than they expected.
“When we first started Home Mat Advantage, I thought younger people would be a huge draw, where kids would listen,” Herring said. “But it hasn’t worked out that way. It’s normally been middle-aged dads and coaches, who really like wrestling. The special thing about our podcast is that we are kids and our podcast is family-friendly and we’ve learned that dads and their kids listen to it on their way to practice.”
Jude is the son of Brandon and Corene Swisher and the oldest of five siblings. Sam is the second youngest of seven children born to Tom and Shannon Herring. Both of their fathers once wrestled and introduced them to the sport.
Their podcast also brings out their individual skills as communicators.
“Sam has an incredible mind,” Swisher said. “The way his brain works and functions is like none other that I have ever seen. He is extremely analytical and comes up with very thought-out conclusions very quickly. It’s because he reads a lot. He always has information coming into his mind and this helps him articulate very clearly.
“I would describe myself as someone who has a lot of thoughts in my head but would struggle to get them out. That’s what I’ve been working on. I think I’m a little more light-hearted and casual, especially in my interviews. I prefer to have an unscripted conversation, where Sam has these excellent interviews because he has a path that he leads his guests on.”
Neither one of them actually saw themselves as journalists but young people with a passion for wrestling and the need to talk about it.
“Wrestling to me is like a self-portrait to a painter. That’s how I think of myself,” said Swisher. “Wrestling teaches me a lot of qualities to instill in myself, mental toughness, the value of hard work and things paying off. Journalism isn’t that much different, but it gives me a medium to show that toughness and hard work to other people. And how I view wrestling through my lens.
“I’ve always had a passion for wrestling and have the dreams to eventually be an Olympic gold medalist and NCAA champion,” Herring said. “Because of that passion, I have developed a second passion for the journalism side of wrestling.
“As a wrestler and competitor, I take notice of the higher level of wrestling and watch what goes through their minds and the moves that they hit. I get to learn a lot about them.”