By Jason Bryant USA Wrestling
It’s pretty common knowledge that Corvallis, Oregon is a nice place to live. It’s also a nice place to get an education, at least according to those who are prone to enjoy settings covered in black and orange and big beaver buck teeth.
Corvallis is also been friendly to wrestling over the years, especially this year. Amidst the fervor of college football starting up in the newly-labled Pac-12, there’s work being done at Oregon State’s Northwest Regional Training Center and it doesn’t involve Saturday games at Reser Stadium.
While American wrestling fans know Nick Simmons has been training in Corvallis under Jim Zalesky, Troy Steiner and Kevin Roberts, he’s not the only wrestler competing in this month’s World Championships who calls the NWRTC (for short) home.
In fact, right now, you’ll find three other wrestlers training for Istanbul in Corvallis.
Oregon State All-American and Olympian Heinrich Barnes represents South Africa, while Israel Silva represents Mexico. If you look on Silva’s couch, you’ll find Jesse Ruiz, also representing Mexico.
Silva wrestled collegiately at North Idaho College, before heading to Chattanooga to wrestle for then-coach Terry Brands. Barnes also wrestled for North Idaho before heading to Oregon State.
“I was always into freestyle,” said Silva, Mexican born but raised in California and Washington. “Once I got around Terry, that was when I focused on freestyle. He’d make us watch tons of video from the top guys in his era. Coach Brands really lit the fire for me to wrestle internationally.”
Silva made the decision to represent Mexico in 2009 and made the World Team that year.
“I had a hard time making that decision,” said Silva. “People approached me to help progress wrestling in Mexico. I talked to Kevin Jackson about it and he was all for it.”
While Silva, 28, wrestled Division I and was a known entity to American wrestling fans, Ruiz wasn’t.
Ruiz, 26, started his collegiate wrestling career at Santa Ana College, a member of the California Community College system. After Santa Ana, he headed to Oklahoma State to try his hand at Division I, but he left Stillwater to be near his ailing grandmother and stepped away from wrestling altogether.
“I wanted to spend the last days with her,” Ruiz said. “I stopped wrestling, but started back and gave it one more shot and went to Menlo College.”
At Menlo, an NAIA program just outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, Ruiz won an NAIA championship at heavywight and finished third as a senior.
“The biggest stage for our sport is the World Championships and Olympics,” said Ruiz. “I’m so blessed. In a way, my path changed from wanting to be an NCAA champion, to spend time with my grandma, now coming back on track in a different way to get back to that goal when I started college to be a World and Olympic Champion.”
With three different countries training under one roof in Corvallis, it’s a bit pressing for Steiner, who will corner Simmons, Silva and Barnes. One coach, three countries.
“It’s a new experience,” said Steiner, whose twin brother Terry is the National Team Coach for the U.S. Women’s program. “They’re my athletes and I don’t see a country attached to them. When you look at the situation and look at what you have, it’s a unique situation.
“Canada comes down here and trains with us, so you have another country that’s been in the room with us as well,” said Steiner.
Scheduling will help Steiner this year, as he’ll wear the flag of three countries in three consecutive days.
“I’m fortunate the way it works out,” said Steiner. “Simmons will wrestle on the first day (of freestyle), Israel on the second and Heinrich on the third. Each day, I’ll have a different guy and a different uniform to wear. I’m fortunate that they each go on their separate day.
“I’m assuming I’ll be in the corner with Izzy and Heinrich. The South African delegation didn’t have a problem with it and I’m sure Mexico will be the same,” said Steiner.
In all, the dynamic of the three nations represented under one club hasn’t changed Steiner’s coaching mentality. The only problem for Steiner might be some ribbing from his Oregon State athletes -- the South African national colors are green and gold, the same colors as Oregon State’s rival, Oregon.
“I want the U.S. to do well and have a successful run over there, but when I left the University of Iowa, am I still going to root for their athletes when we’re out on the mats against them? The guys you’re working with day in and day out and seeing them bust their butts, you have to coach them and pull for them. You go into coaching mode and forget who’s on the other side.”
Keep an eye out for …
North of the border, you’ll find past NCAA Champion Matt Gentry of Stanford, an Olympian using his dual citizenship to wrestle for Canada.
“I spent a lot of time up here when I was a kid,” said Gentry, who was in Vancouver training before Canada set off to the World Championships. “I’ve been here for six years now and have strong ties to the coaches and the guys on the team.
“My parents always wanted me to remember that (Canada) was part of where I came from and it was an opportunity,” said Gentry.
Gentry first started entertaining the idea when he went to the 2004 Olympics to watch former Stanford teammate Patricia Miranda compete on the first U.S. women’s Olympic team. He met some of the Canadian coaches there and started to get the ball rolling from there.
Winning an NCAA championship in 2005 also played a role.
“The time I started having an opportunity, that was the year I started beliving I had an opportunity to compete at (the World and Olympic) level,” said Gentry. “It’s been a great opoortunity for me and I’m thankful for Canada providing as many resources that they did and help me get better as a wrestler.”
You’ll also find heavyweight Arjan Bhullar, an NAIA champion for British Columbia-based Simon Fraser University. While Bhullar wrestled his entire college career at Simon Fraser, the school competed in the NAIA for decades. The school will be the first non-American school to compete in the NCAA (Division II) starting this year.
Khetag Pliev gained Canadian citizenship and has represented the country in past World Championships at 96kg. Pliev wrestled in Liberty Township, Ohio and was a 2001 USA Wrestling Junior Freestyle National Champion.
But there’s more.
New York natives Sean and C.J. Floor will be wrestling in their first World Championships this year. The pair wrestle for Gannon University, a Division II program in Erie, Pa. The two hail from Port Jervis, the hometown of Olympic champion brothers Ed and Lou Banach.
They’re representing American Samoa. Yes, American Samoa.
C.J., who started his career at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., said recently while working out at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colol, he’s wrestled roughly a dozen freestyle matches in his life.
If you stick around the Oceanic countries, you’ll also find Elgin Elwais of tiny Palau, and island nation of 20,000 inhabitants. Elwais is wrestling Greco-Roman and studied domestically at Northern Michigan. Elwais has competed in several domestic international competitions for the past several years and was the flag bearer for his nation at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
But don’t be confused when you look at Cameroon’s roster and see Romeo Djoumessi. This isn’t the Djoumessi who was a Division III champion for Wartburg College -- but it is his cousin.
Puerto Rico’s Jaime Espinal and Franklin Gomez, an NCAA champion for Michigan State, aren’t the only two from their island with U.S. wrestling ties, either. Pedro Soto, a multiple-time entrant at the World Championships, was a 2003 Junior Freestyle All-American. Wrestlers from Puerto Rico are eligible for USA Wrestling age-group championships. Espinal and Gomez train in State College, Pa., at the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
Not to be excluded are a pair of wrestlers representing countries in the United Kingdom. Harvard grad Nate Ackerman will suit up again for Great Britain, while Northern Iowa alum and current Michigan State assistant Alex Dolly will represent Ireland.
Dolly’s story might be one of the most interesting. In an interview with Kyle Klingman on the “On The Mat” radio program, Dolly explained he was literally “grandfathered” into citizenship.
“Ireland is a country that allows you to have dual citizenship from the Foreign Births Register. My grandpa was born on the boat over to the U.S., the boat is considered Irish property,” said Dolly in an August 30 interview with Kyle Klingman.
What’s that mean? Well for Dolly, it means if you’re no more than second generation born outside of the country, you can have citizenship. According to Dolly, his aunt got dual citizenship for Dolly and his brothers as a gift.
“We never did anything with it, but this time, it worked in my favor,” he said.
Dolly, who has never been to Ireland, wrestled at the European Championships and by circumstance, is wrestling at the World Championships.
“It’s an odd situation; I reached out to Ireland about a year ago,” said Dolly. “I’d been wrestling in the U.S., came in fifth in the U.S. Trials but unless you’re top three, you don’t get any international experience.
“I was talking with Franklin Gomez, a former Spartan wrestler, and it had come up and he told me to get a hold of Ireland,” said Dolly. “I went and wrestled in the Europeans and talked with the organization and they said you’re our guy to go to worlds,” said Dolly.
So while American wrestling fans can dial in on the 21 athletes representing this country, there are plenty of other athletes to follow during the championships in Istanbul.