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|A Day at the OTC: Wrestlers endure grueling sessions in preparation for the World Championships|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - They come in all shapes, sizes and ages.
Some are tall and lanky. Most are short and stocky with chiseled physiques, popeye-sized forearms, funny-looking ears and hardly an ounce of body fat on them.
They begin filling the wrestling room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center just after sunrise. The last wrestler leaves the facility just before sunset.
The athletes range from a high school sophomore on the Junior World Greco-Roman Team to a 38-year-old Olympic gold medalist contemplating a comeback in men's freestyle.
Ice bags and white athletic tape are seemingly everywhere as athletes endure the grueling, two-a-day sessions. They are draped over and wrapped around aching shoulders, knees and ankles, as the OTC training staff puts in long days to take care of these World-class athletes.
In baseball, they call this time of year the Dog Days of August. You could easily apply that description to this time of year for the best American freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestlers in the land.
Welcome to the 2006 World Team Training Camp.
A day at the Olympic Training Center could best be described as organized chaos. Wrestlers, coaches, trainers, and the tour groups that frequently step inside the steamy, sweaty, stench-filled room, are virtually on top of each other as the Senior-level and Junior-level teams train for upcoming World Championships in men's and women's freestyle, and Greco-Roman.
Close to 150 wrestlers will come in and out of the doors of the wrestling room at the Olympic Training Center on one of the busiest days at the complex on Thursday, Aug. 24.
It's arguably the busiest practice room on the planet.
The purpose of these camps is to prepare these athletes - through conditioning, strength training, technique sessions, live wrestling, film study, strategy sessions and sports psychology - for some of the biggest matches of their lives.
The Junior World Championships are set for Aug. 29-Sept. 3 in Guatemala City, Guatemala, with the World Championships set for Sept. 25-Oct. 1 in Guangzhou, China.
"It's very crazy in here with all the different teams and athletes training in here, but it's a good crazy because there is wrestling everywhere and everyone is feeding off each other," said Izzy Izboinikov, USA Wrestling's National Women's Developmental Coach. "The intensity and the hard work, you see it in all of these practices, and I think it's a great atmosphere to be in to prepare you for these World-level events. There are great coaches at the camp at all levels and we're always bouncing ideas off each other. It's a great environment to be in. I know all the teams pull for each other. We're all on the same team."
The men's and women's freestyle teams are nearing the end of their training camps. The men are in Day 9 of 10 of their second-to-last camp while the women are in Day 10 of 11 in their second-to-last camp.
The Greco-Roman team is in Day 1 of a camp that will run through Sept. 2. The Greco-Roman World Team just returned from a two-week training camp that concluded with a competition in Romania.
One of the toughest jobs associated with training camp is trying to mesh all the team's schedules together so everyone can have access to the wrestling room during the busiest time of the year at the Olympic Training Center.
This day starts with the women's freestyle team in the room bright and early for a conditioning session at 7 a.m. The athletes are running sprints in the wrestling room.
The Greco-Roman team is in the room a short time later for an 8 a.m. session. The focus is on drills and skills, as the wrestlers are launching each other all over the place. World Team member Lindsey Durlacher is putting on a show with his reverse lift and arm throws as he works against National Team member Sam Hazewinkel.
The American Greco-Roman team has worked diligently to adapt to the new rules that were implemented last year by FILA, the international governing body for wrestling. The new rules emphasize use of the reverse lift with nearly all matches now being decided in the par terre position on the mat.
Among those missing from the Greco-Roman session is USA Wrestling National Coach Steve Fraser, who was feeling ill shortly after coming back from Romania. Momir Petkovic, Fraser's assistant, puts the team through practice on Thursday. Petkovic won an Olympic gold medal in 1976 for the former Yugoslavia and has been in this country for 20 years.
A number of other people who traveled to Romania are not feeling well. Among them is World bronze medalist Justin Ruiz, who sits on the sidelines during Thursday's workout. Ruiz, who will compete at his third World meet in Greco-Roman, planned to be back on the mat the next day.
World Team member Joe Warren is still nursing an injured foot. He tells the Greco coaches he plans to be back on the mat soon.
The Junior World Freestyle Team is next up on the practice mats at the OTC. Rising star Henry Cejudo looks primed to win a Junior World gold medal after placing fifth in this event in 2005. Cejudo is the total package and his silky-smooth technique is evident as he fires in on a number of textbook shots while facing returning Junior World bronze medalist Patrick McCaffrey.
USA Wrestling Developmental Freestyle Coach Dave Bennett can't help but flash a smile as he watches Cejudo put on a clinic on his feet. The veteran coach is well aware this gifted 19-year-old is far beyond his years for an American wrestler.
Cejudo, a recent high school graduate who won the U.S. Nationals and placed second behind past World champion Sammie Henson at the U.S. World Team Trials, is the next big thing in American wrestling.
The schedule for the World Team for men's freestyle says "AM/OFF" for Thursday, Aug. 24. But during their "off" time Thursday morning, World Team members Mike and Bill Zadick, Donny Pritzlaff and Andy Hrovat are among those next door to the wrestling room pumping iron in the weight room.
Sean Bormet, who coaches Pritzlaff and Hrovat and runs the highly-successful Overtime Wrestling Club in suburban Chicago, is in the weight room working with his two pupils.
The women are back in the wrestling room a short time later, just before lunch time. The Junior World Team, in addition to the other Junior women wrestlers who are in camp, warms up with a game where one team tries to advance a ball from one end of the wrestling room to the other while throwing it to their teammates. A couple minor collisions occur as the swarm of bodies come together, but luckily there are no torn ACLs or concussions to report.
At the same time, World Team members in women's freestyle are in the upstairs gymnasium doing individual workouts under the supervision of USA Wrestling's National Women's Coach Terry Steiner. The individual workouts provide an opportunity for Steiner to work specifically with one World Team member at a time. He works with athletes on techniques as they develop a game plan for each wrestler to follow at the World meet.
Seven-time World medalist Kristie Marano jokes around with a teammate in the hallway as she arrives late in the morning for yet another session. Inside the room, two-time World silver medalist Tina George is looking forward to the end of camp on Friday.
"I'm so tired right now that I'm praying for death so I can be done with camp - unfortunately it hasn't happened yet," George said with a laugh. "Seriously though, I know camp is good for me. I know by the end of the second week that we should be completely exhausted, so we're right on pace. I'm so tired my arms feel like noodles. We've worked really hard."
Even with the grind of camp, George said she's already focused on the World Championships.
"I can't wait to get over to China and wrestle," she said. "I'm very excited about the competition."
Just before lunch, World freestyle bronze medalist Tolly Thompson sits on a couch in the coaches' office adjacent to the wrestling room and studies tape in preparation for the World meet. The 33-year-old Thompson has made his second straight World Team at heavyweight after years of being stuck behind World champion Stephen Neal and World silver medalist Kerry McCoy.
The men's freestyle and Greco-Roman teams have meetings with USADA, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, from noon to 1 p.m. USADA has been in the news recently with track-and-field sprinters Justin Gatlin and Marion Jones failing drug tests.
Just before the final freestyle practice, World Team member Mike Zadick finally resolves the issue with his dog, Smoke. The large black dog, who travels virtually everywhere with the flamboyant former Hawkeye wrestler, had camped out underneath Zadick's truck in the parking lot at the OTC when Zadick worked out.
That didn't sit well with some people. So Zadick on Thursday afternoon dropped the dog off at the home of USA Wrestling employee Ted Witulski, who lives near the OTC. Smoke set up camp in Witulski's front yard, which is fenced-in. Zadick and Smoke were expected to head back home to Iowa City sometime after the last workout of camp on Friday afternoon.
"Dogs aren't allowed on campus and someone called the Humane Society on me," Zadick said. "Smoke's been to training camp with me before, but I've taken a lot of crap about bringing him here this time."
Back at the OTC, the Greco boys are back in the room at 3 p.m. for the second and final workout of the day. The theme of this practice is "Focus on Par Terre/individual offense-defense." That's a good thing for World Team member T.C. Dantzler, who thrives in that position down on the mat where he excels with the reverse lift.
Dantzler, who turns 36 in October, is on his fourth World Team and looks like a legitimate medal threat this year. He looks as athletic as ever and shows in practice why he is considered so dangerous with his reverse lift.
"This schedule is really no different than what the residents do every day in practice," Dantzler said. "This time of the year, the World Team members will get a little bit more attention than we normally get in a practice in January."
Dantzler said the way he is training now - this close to the World meet - is a little different.
"I am really focused on doing everything right every time versus the training in January where I might be more focused on getting the volume instead of getting the technique," Dantzler said. "I've been thinking about the Worlds since Oct. 1 of last year when I got my butt kicked. I'm really excited about this year's World Championships. We're coming off a real tough tournament and that really got me thinking about competing at the Worlds."
The wrestling room is packed for the final practice of the day at 4:30 p.m. when the Senior-level men's freestyle team hits the mats. The men's team had a rare morning off Thursday, but is back at it late in the afternoon with an intense session as the instructions being barked out by USA Wrestling National Coach Kevin Jackson and USA Wrestling Resident Freestyle Coach Terry Brands echo off the walls in the room.
Jackson, an Olympic and World champion, and Brands, a two-time World champion, seem to have an excellent chemistry and work well together as they drive the American team less than a month removed from the World meet. Their words are inspiring and motivational as they bring the same passion to coaching they had as wrestlers.
A point of emphasis in the freestyle practices has been defense. Not giving up big points is critical with the new rules and the lower-scoring matches that have resulted.
Among the freestyle wrestlers in the room is Kendall Cross, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist who is training again and appears serious about competing again after a 10-year layoff. Cross, now 38, looks sharp and the new rules appear to benefit his unique style. Cross is a dangerous wrestler with his big-move capability. One big move will win you a period in most cases under these new rules.
Also in the room has been three-time World champion Lee Kemp, another guy who looks in good enough shape to make a comeback if he wanted to. Kemp was back in Colorado Springs this week helping do some coaching with the men's freestyle team. Kemp followed his success on the mat by becoming a successful businessman.
Another member of the retired-but-still-in-great-shape category is McCoy, the two-time Olympian who is now the head coach at Stanford. McCoy looks trim and fit, and said he's dropped about 30 pounds since his competitive career ended after the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
McCoy will accompany Thompson to China and serve as his training partner for the World Championships. The powerful 6-foot-4 Thompson now seems to dwarf McCoy, unlike when they competed together, with his massive physique.
"Everyone has their own individual goals at these camps," McCoy said. "Some people want to build their conditioning base and some people want to build their technical base. Some guys come out here in great shape and just continue building on that. They may need to work on positioning, whether it's hand-fighting, finishing or the clinch. The new rules have dictated you have to be so much more tactical, so wrestling is much more technical and that's what the focus is on. Camp really helps you get your tactics and strategy down. A lot of the strength and conditioning work is really up to the individual."
McCoy said people shouldn't underestimate an American team that lacks some of the experience and star power of past U.S. freestyle squads.
"Every guy that steps on the mat for the U.S. expects to win," McCoy said. "It doesn't matter if they've been to The Show 10 times or this is your first time, these guys are representing the U.S. and they're going out to win. We have three first-time guys on the World Team, but these guys have been competing internationally and they've been overseas. Those guys just need to get out there and make it happen.
"I hope some of the other teams take us for granted and take us lightly. Our guys are ready and they are going to do some good things."
Mike Zadick, long black hair flowing with his trademark beard, is one of three first-time members of the U.S. World Freestyle Team along with Pritzlaff and Hrovat. He is easy to spot in the room with the protective padding he still wears inside his shirt to protect the sternum he injured last year.
"You're so focused on what you need to do to peak for China and what you need to do to win that gold medal that you don't worry too much about everything else," Zadick said. "It's been chaotic and a little frustrating when you're finishing a move and then you roll into somebody else with so many people in the room. You need to be a little cautious about not rolling an ankle or hurting your knee. You definitely have to be smart about how you train.
"The camp has gone great. The coaches have put a good training cycle together for us and they'll have us ready. This is another step I've climbed toward getting ready for the World Championships. I have a good feeling about this tournament. There are two Olympic champions at my weight. It would be great to draw one of them right away. I look forward to hitting it off real big right away. I'm excited about this opportunity. It's a moment I've dreamed of my whole life."
The men's and women's freestyle teams begin their final training camps early next month before departing for China.
Steiner cancels the final scheduled practice of the day for the women, a weight lifting session that was set from 6-7:30 p.m. The rugged, demanding camp has taken its toll and Steiner elects to give his team a break.
After a long, hectic, frenzied day in the Olympic Training Center, all the athletes were ready for a break.
Well, at least until the next morning. The Greco-Roman team returned to the mats bright and early for an 8 a.m. workout on Friday. The men's and women's freestyle teams occupied the mats a short time later.
"Camp really can be a grind, and it's very tough and challenging," Marano said. "But it's what we need to get ready for the World Championships."