Writing Time: Why the Marine Corps has become deeply invested in wrestling’s future
Courtesy of Trackwrestling – Original Post
by Andy Hamilton, Trackwrestling
The speaker list included some of the heaviest hitters in the wrestling family with Jordan Burroughs and Hollywood star Chris Pratt headlining last summer’s United States Wrestling Foundation Gala.
But the message that produced the longest and loudest ovation that night was delivered by a guy whose wrestling and professional career has unfolded primarily outside the public spotlight and inside war-torn pockets of the world.
Marine Corps Maj. Jared Reddinger stood at the dais last August in downtown Los Angeles, explaining why the Marines have aligned themselves with wrestling, telling how the sport shaped his life and talking about the characteristics he developed on the mat that pulled him through some of the most intense battles he faced in Iraq.
“I’ve been in some environments in which nobody wants to be in,” Reddinger said. “The things that have gotten me through that, it hasn’t just been the training that the Marine Corps has provided me, it’s been the lessons I’ve learned as a 6-year-old kid in a wrestling room.”
For me, that week in Southern California — at the USWF Gala and the men’s freestyle training camp at Camp Pendleton — crystallized the symbiotic relationship between wrestling and the Marine Corps. It shed light on why the Marines are deeply invested in the sport and why they, too, have an eye on high school wrestling participation numbers across the country.
“Over two-thirds of America’s youth are unqualified to join the Marine Corps or to joins the service at all,” said Reddinger, who wrestled at Navy. “There’s even fewer that are willing or have the mental and physical capability to do so. The Marine Corps has decided that we’re going to align ourselves with wrestlers. We feel the wrestling community has the kids who have the skills — the mental and physical resilience — to succeed in the types of environments we live in.”
Nearly a year earlier at another USWF gathering in Detroit — one celebrating the American men’s freestyle team’s 2017 World title — Marine Corps Col. David Fallon struck up a conversation with National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Mike Moyer.
Moyer told Fallon about one of the biggest challenges currently facing the sport — the downward participation trend at the high school level.
Like Reddinger, Fallon was a high school and college wrestler, too. He walked away from the sport not with a mountain of medals and accolades but rather a set of intangible benefits that still stick with him.
“I was a 98-pounder initially,” Fallon said a couple weeks ago. “The sport just sort of attracted me by looking at how hard those guys were working in practices all the time. It’s just something that appealed to me. I became a mat rat. It was everything the sport offered and the challenge that made me stay committed to it. I was fortunate to have some good coaches who were good men, good leaders and kept me motivated and I stuck with it.”
Fallon wrestled at Boston College before the Eagles dropped their program, but he never lost his connection to the sport. And the conversation with Moyer set the wheels in motion in his mind.
“It got me thinking: What could we do as the Marine Corps to help the wrestling community?” Fallon said. “It became very clear that some of the recruiting strategies we use could be applied within the wrestling community. Frankly, the Marine Corps believes wrestlers and the Marines are cut from the same cloth. We sort of have the same DNA. If we’re using strategies to find the next generation of Marines, then why can’t the wrestling community use those same strategies to find the next generation of wrestlers?”
The Marines partnered with the NWCA on a couple projects. The NWCA began bringing in high-level Marine recruiters for its leadership academies to share their methodology behind recruiting, team building and leadership development.
In addition, the Marines have also taken steps to make those strategies more accessible for high school coaches. Fallon said the Marines are working on teaching coaches how to use “championship building blocks” to help introduce more young people to wrestling by stressing
wrestling’s benefits and emphasizing lessons young people can take from the sport and carry through life.
The idea is for coaches to approach students in an effort to find out what’s important to them. The building blocks include incentives such as facing a challenge, being physically fit, creating opportunities for higher education and the pride of being on a team.
“Then it becomes a conversation where the coach will explain exactly how the sport of wrestling is going to give them exactly what they’re looking for,” Fallon said. “Whether or not they win a match is not the emphasis or focus. It’s being able to walk away having learned those life lessons on the mat and that acknowledgement that those same skills are going to help them, regardless of whatever they pursue in their life.”
PIECES STARTING TO FIT TOGETHER FOR AMERICAN WOMEN’S FREESTYLE SQUAD
For the American women’s freestyle team, January began on the beaches of Puerto Rico and ended in heart of Siberia. The month started with a training camp in San Juan and wrapped up with a trip to Russia for the Yarygin, where Sarah Hildebrandt and Tamyra Mensah-Stock won titles and Victoria Anthony grabbed a bronze.
“It’s a tough tournament for so many reasons,” USA Wrestling women’s freestyle coach Terry Steiner said. “Competition is only the beginning. You’ve got the travel to get there. It’s horrendous. There’s no way to make it there easy. It’s a long trip. You get there and there’s the weather. This year it wasn’t so cold, but the weather is usually very harsh. Then there’s everything else — different culture, different food, different language. It’s just a tough place to be. To get there in a short amount of time and get your body adjusted and get yourself comfortable in that setting, it’s a challenge.
“But like I told the girls, the ones who were there, they may never have a World Championships or an Olympics on U.S. soil again during their careers, so you don’t have a choice but to get used to this kind of travel. This year we go to Kazakhstan (for the World Championships). That’s not easy, either. So the more we can put our athletes in those kinds of situations, the more and better it prepares it. As long as we don’t overdo it. We’ve got to look at the cumulative effect of traveling like that. But you can’t not do it, either. You have to do it a few times just to get used to it.”
The pieces of a championship-level team are starting to come together for the American women.
Japan won last year’s World title with six medalists — four golds, a silver and a bronze — but it’s not hard to see a path where the Americans could match or exceed that if they can catch some luck on the health front and perform up to their capabilities.
COMING THIS WEEK ON THE MAT
Pittsburgh coach Keith Gavin joins the show this week as our guest for On the Mat. We talked about the progress of the Panthers in the second year of the Gavin era, his thoughts on few rules issues and his development during his competitive days when he went from never winning a state title to becoming a national champion.
“I think it was a benefit to me when I got to Pitt because you see a lot of kids who have a lot of success in high school and then they get to college and they struggle with expectations, where for me, there weren’t a whole lot of expectations placed on me right away, so that made things a little bit easier,” Gavin said. “I didn’t have to deal with some of that stuff until I was older and maybe a little bit more prepared for it. I think that’s what’s tough when kids come into the program and they’re still pretty immature and they have all these expectations. You have to have a mature mindset to deal with that stuff. I try to help them with that.
“I feel like I can relate with every guy on the team because I’ve been in every situation. When I first got there I was trying to make the lineup. By the end of my time here I was trying to win the nationals and win a Hodge Trophy. … And my story, people tell that story and I think it gets fabricated a little bit. I was third in the state, but I lost to some good guys in the PA state. It just goes to show our depth.”