Over the past few weeks I have been taking a look back at my experience in Russia as a way to fully understand how I arrived at this point in my life. I’ll be releasing some of my blogs from my time in Russia as “Throw Back Thursday” posts. I'll pick out a specific part of that blog post and write about what I was thinking at the time and what I think about it now, years later. You'll be able to find the rest of the original blog at the bottom of each post.
I moved to Russia with two long term goals and an open mind. The first goal was to become a World and Olympic Champion. The second was to learn the training system of the best sports program in the world. I set these goals a year before heading to Russia when I first met my Russian Coach, Malik Tadeev. Malik saw the potential I had as a wrestler and I expressed my interest in becoming a world class trainer. He opened up his heart and mind for the taking and this is a lesson I have not forgotten today. Knowledge is a tool that is better given then kept a secret.
“I finally hit rock bottom with my wrestling along with USA Wrestling at large at the World Championships last week in Moscow by having the worst performance ever. I had to look deep into myself and let everything go. I had to give up what was done to me in the past and move on with my life before I could start training again and enjoy it.”
I am picking this part of the blog to talk about since I have never really elaborated on it. After making the Olympic team in 2008 I lost my condo to foreclosure by the spring of 2009. I had purchased my condo in the fall of 2005 while I was training and working as a bartender at a local college establishment. In 2006 when I made my first world team, I had to take less money being on the national team then I was able to make bartending in Ann Arbor. What made things worse by 2009 when I finally lost my condo was the economy across the country. I was being paid to train for the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club which is a non profit that has to fundraise in order give athletes the opportunity to focus on achieving their goals. Because of a downturn in the economy and, in turn, donations, in 2009 the club was not able to pay me the full amount they owed me which cemented my fate as a first time homeowner. This was something I couldn’t understand at the time - I was an Olympian and I never asked for a raise after I made a world and Olympic team. All I wanted was the same amount of money so I could continue towards my goals of becoming a world and Olympic champion.
On the national level I was competing for the New York Athletic Club. The NYAC picked me up as an athlete after my junior year of college when I finished 4th place at the world team trials. The NYAC is the oldest wrestling team in America and to this day I am still a volunteer member of their team as a coach. They have always taken care of me and any athlete that I send their way. After the 2008 Olympics they asked me if I was planning on continuing as an athlete. Since this was my plan, they offered to pay me a monthly stipend to continue representing them. I did not ask for this money, it was offered to me, so when they failed to pay me for almost a year with no explanation I was a little perplexed. It wasn’t until I called Art Martori of the Sunkist Kids and asked if I could switch teams that they finally began paying me. I expressed to Art that all I wanted was support and I was not asking for anything that wasn’t offered to me. He helped me out and made a few phone calls which lead to a check being sent to me immediately. Unfortunately, I had already lost my condo and had moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO.
Being an Olympian I could have gone anywhere to train after I lost my condo in Ann Arbor and had to leave the CKWC. I ended up picking the OTC since they offered me a full time freestyle training environment, a rented house on a golf course and a monthly stipend. Just like the CKWC and the NYAC (this was eventually the only money that was paid) I was never paid the stipend that was promised to me. This was the straw that broke my back. I didn’t know what I was doing to be treated like this, but I knew I didn’t deserve it. All I wanted to do was train full time, something many people across the country were able to accomplish and get paid to do. Not to mention I was not getting along with Brandon Slay as my coach. I had several meetings with him and Zeke Jones where I was in tears expressing my needs as one of their more experienced athletes living there. At the time I believed the level of training was geared towards that of high school athletes and not that of a world class wrestler. I remember one private meeting I had with Zeke alone in his office where I was again in tears about the logic behind our training. All he could do was look at me in the eyes and tell me that I was going to make a great coach one day, but I was not the coach at the time so I had to deal with my situation. It was this meeting that cemented my fate at the OTC and pushed me to finally make the decision to move to Russia.
I am probably the only person in history to make an Olympic team, lose their house and not get paid by multiple organizations all in a 2 year time period. Money and possessions don’t mean anything to me, as humans we have created these things and their power over us. At this point I was more than happy to move to Russia and train with the best team in the world even though I had to pay them $1,000/month for room and board. Accomplishing my goals has always been more important than money to me - I knew eventually when I needed to make money the experience I gained would be worth more long term then a small amount of money short term. If anyone is wondering how I was able to afford moving to Russia when I was in debt and had no income you can go to Deadspin and see how Chael Sonnen reached out to me. He cited in his email that watching this interview on Flowrestling was his motivation to help me. I could not be more thankful for the opportunity he and Mike Novogratz provided me by paying my room and board while in Russia, I tell each of them everytime I see them how much it meant to me and how their investment in me is now finally paying off as I have used much of the knowledge I gained while living there to establish one of the best freestyle training centers in the country.--------------
Russia: First Week
So I arrived in Moscow the day that the Freestyle Worlds started and I missed the opening rounds of 55kg but that was no big deal, so I thought. I guess I missed the USA’s best performance but I really went to Moscow to support Jake Herbert and scout my weight class for the upcoming year.
I was not really that impressed with the results from my weight class at the worlds and I know I am going to be right there in the mix to win a world title at 84kg next year. The Russian wrestler that placed 3rd I beat 6-1, 6-0 in the finals at a tournament in France a few years ago and I know I can still beat him. He trains here in Vladikavkaz and is a really good guy so I will take full advantage of training with him over the next 7 months.
I left Moscow this past Monday and it really hurts that the US wrestlers were not able to perform to their abilities and I know how hard they all work. I am in the same situation. I haven't been myself the last few years and on top of that I had to deal with injuries and together they all started to snowball. I wasn’t able to wrestle in the US Open for the first time since 2000 due to a staph infection in my ankle and for the first time since 2006 I haven’t been on the national team. I finally hit rock bottom with my wrestling along with USA Wrestling at large at the World Championships last week in Moscow by having the worst performance ever. I had to look deep into myself and let everything go, I had to give up what was done to me in the past and move on with my life before I could start training again and enjoy it.
I am wrestling the next two years for myself and I will be successful, because if I am not, it is my loss, not anyone else’s. I am doing everything I can that will put me in position to win a World and Olympic Title, I just hope everyone else in the USA gets the same attitude because at the end of the day it is you that is staring back in the mirror, and when it is all said and done I know that person will look back at me with 100% confidence that I did everything I could to win.
This first week in Vladikavkaz was really light training. I traveled Monday, the gym was locked Tuesday, I played basketball Wednesday, we wrestled Thursday and Friday, then Saturday was off due to security for a soccer game. My weight is getting down and I am excited to wrestle 84kg for the first time since the 2009 US Open. My first tournament is October 1st in Yakutsk so I don’t have a lot of time left to prepare but I feel good and confident and my wrestling is where it needs to be for September. I am still doing my Russian lessons every night in my dorm room so hopefully it will all come together soon because I need to learn the language to fully understand why the Russian train the way they do and the logic behind their yearly training cycles. Well until next week.